The girl of fire and tho.., p.26
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.26

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 26

  Author: Rae Carson

  “Me?” I whisper. “I will decide?”

  “Whether you live or die. ”

  There will be a cost, a choice. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care. If I can kill him, it won’t matter.

  “I want to live,” I say, pretending to be more afraid than I am. Suddenly, I realize I’m no longer cold. No longer in a state of perpetual prayer to keep my limbs from freezing. Maybe because whatever happens next will be my act of service? Or maybe it’s the presence of the foreign Godstone.

  Ah, the Godstone. This could be my only chance to understand.

  “That . . . thing around your neck,” I say, pointing. “My people fear it greatly. ”

  “Eat, eat!”

  I stick a finger in the bowl again while he settles back, the beautiful blue of his eyes flashing in arrogance. “It is something to be feared. This, and the stones of my brothers, will deliver your land into our hands. It is God’s will. ”

  I almost stab him right then. What would this man know of God’s will? He is insane, hardly human with his wild eyes and predatory hunger. My hands shake with rage, though I’m not sure whom it’s directed at. The Vía-Reformas kept me in ignorance according to the will of God. Father Nicandro told me about my heritage for the same reason. Cosmé and Humberto kidnapped me to bring about his will. Now, even my enemy presumes to know the mind of God.

  Alentín assured me that everyone has doubts. But it seems as though I am the only one without a single idea about what God wants from me. I am his bearer, and I understand nothing.

  “Why?” I whisper. “Why are you doing this?”

  “I think a little wine with dinner would be perfect, don’t you?” He shoots me a feral grin, then rises to his feet. I can hardly breathe for watching him approach the stand with its wineskin.

  God, please let him drink.

  He glides across the ground with leonine grace, and it’s as if something else squirms beneath his taut skin. A creature within a creature. Alodia would seem oafish next to him.

  He fills two mugs.

  I don’t know enough about duerma leaf. I don’t know how long it takes for the poison to kill someone, or whether or not raw berries will even do the trick. I lean back as he approaches, seeking comfort in the feel of the knife point pricking my rear.

  He settles back down. “Tell me about your companions,” he says, “and I will give you some wine. ”

  As if wine were such a treasure. There is something simple and ingenuous about him. Or maybe it’s insanity. I pretend to consider.

  “What do you want to know?” I ask. My breath catches in my throat as he sips.

  “Why did you come?”

  The Belleza Guerra says the best deceptions are born of truth. “We wanted to see your army,” I tell him.

  “I don’t believe you are that stupid. ” He takes another sip.

  I gaze at the other mug, as if longing for it. “We were sent,” I say.

  His eyes widen. “By whom?”

  “I cannot tell you. ”

  He leans forward, close enough for me to see his black irises. They are oblong, like a cat’s. “You will tell me, or you will bleed. ”

  I make a careful study of the food in my bowl, pretending to deliberate. “It was the conde,” I say at last. “Conde Treviño. ” The man who supplies our enemy with food. The traitor. “There are many in the conde’s court who do not believe your army to be so large. He needed confirmation and sent us to find out. ”

  He sits back, considering, and brings the mug to his lips again. “I don’t believe you. ”

  God, please let the poison work. “Why not?” I try to look confused.

  “Because you are no warrior. The conde is a great fool, but he would not send a child who wets herself to spy on an army. ”

  He is right, of course, and my heart pounds out the truth. I bear the Godstone! It screams. But I know, as sure as I’ve known anything, that this animagus must never know about it.

  “I’m not sure why he sent me,” I say, my head bowed in mock shame. Keep him talking, I tell myself.

  “You are a very poor liar. ”

  He moves so fast, I hardly see. I only notice the pain, bright and bursting along my forearm. I look down at the blood welling there in two parallel streaks.

  He flicks two fingertips at me, and I see the sharp objects embedded there, sticking from beneath his fingernails, dripping with my blood.

  My pulse hammers in my arm, crimson streams over the edge, drips onto the ground. The hazy air wavers before me and I feel myself swaying.

  He sips again. “Now, once the earth has tasted your blood, maybe we will know the truth of this. ”

  Bright drops fall onto the hard-packed ground. They spread on impact, flattening, blurring into the ground, browning. The Godstone turns to fire, and I nearly choke as the burn gushes up my spine.

  “The earth loves your blood,” he sings. “Oh, yes, yours in particular, it loves, loves, loves. My stone warms already. ” He lifts the mug to smiling lips.

  The amulet swaying against his chest begins to glow, white-blue like predawn stars. He is going to burn me. He will force the truth from me by sizzling my skin one wet bit at a time. I am not a strong person. I know I will say anything to make the pain stop.

  He is much quicker than I am, so I know I must do this exactly right. While my left forearm continues to feed the earth my life’s blood, I reach with my right, slowly, to the knife that bruises my back. I hold it there in hesitation. This could be the moment I die. He could slice me with those manufactured claws and rip out my throat if he chose.

  “I don’t want to die,” I tell him, truthfully.

  He smiles like a father fawning over his favorite daughter, the way my father used to look with such fond tolerance at my sister. “All you have to do is tell me . . . ”

  He doesn’t finish. He looks at me strangely, squinting his unlikely eyes. “You can’t disappear on me, girl,” he says, slipping back into the Lengua Classica. “It is too late. The earth has already tasted you. ”

  My gaze does not move from his too-lovely face, but I pull the knife from my sash.

  “I’m so tired. So tired, tired, tired. ” He looks around the tent, unable to focus. Then his eyes widen with understanding. “What have you done to me?”

  I want to tell him he is a fool. I want to show him my own Godstone, alive and real. I say nothing.

  He grasps for his caged Godstone and thrusts it toward me, but the glow already fades. “Why does it not burn you?” he demands, his voice garbled. “Why?”

  I respond in the Lengua Classica. “Because it is not the will of God. ”

  His blue eyes widen. He opens his mouth, but no sound comes out. He topples backward and lies there, his head at the base of the altar, his ear brushing the leaves of the dying duerma plant.

  “Thank you, God,” I breathe aloud. “Thank you. ”

  I put a hand to his chest. A pulse flutters beneath his ribs, faint but true. Not dead. Maybe the duerma berries lose potency when dried. But if my own experience with duerma leaf is any indication, he will sleep a long time.

  With the knife, I cut a strip from the hem of my robe and use it to bind my bleeding forearm.

  Inexplicably, I am alive. There must be a way to escape, to warn the others, for I have learned much. The animagi can freeze a person’s muscles with a flick of their fingers. They arm themselves with Godstones. They’ve found a way to bring forth fire by “feeding the earth” with blood. My tiny army of children, my Malficio, must know of these things.

  So, I curl my knees to my chest, and I think.

  I’ll never make it past the perimeter of the camp dressed as I am. I must disguise myself. The bleached-white robes of the animagus beckon to me, and I almost laugh aloud at the idea. I could take his robes. His amulet.

  I reach for his head with di
staste. His white-yellow hair slithers against my palm as I pull the amulet over his head. When I drop it around my own, the Godstone in my navel jumps with joyous greeting. “Stop that,” I mumble.

  Getting him out of his robe is more difficult. In spite of his slenderness, he is very heavy. I roll him back and forth, releasing first one arm, then the other, then push him onto his stomach. Without his robe, he seems fragile, the blue of his veins spidering across the pale flesh of hairless legs. His long braid glitters in the candlelight like liquid gold. In a flash of pique, I grab it and saw it off at the nape.

  The smell of incense almost makes me gag as the robe settles across my shoulders. It’s made of hide I’ve never seen before, thick and heavy, but pliant and flowing as fine silk. I tie it closed and pull out the amulet so its dark cage shows against the robe’s whiteness. The cowl fits neatly over my head. I weave the frayed end of his braid into the ties of the robe and let it dangle down my chest. Within the robe, I hold tight to the knife.

  I look down at the animagus. So delicate. So beautiful. He will awaken eventually. Maybe I should put the knife into his heart while he sleeps so he does not live to burn again. But the thought of using a knife again repulses me.

  I get a better idea.

  His bedding lies flush against the side of the tent. I yank at one end, pulling it toward the center. The wool is soft and very dry. I lift a candle from the altar, carefully, so the hot wax does not splash onto my skin. I grab the edge of a sheepskin and hold it to the flame until it catches. As the wool curls and blackens, I avert my head to avoid the acrid smell. It burns slowly. It will be several minutes before flames hit the tent walls. Enough time for me to reach the edge of the camp. I refuse to think about the man lying at my feet.

  I’m ready, but I can’t make my feet move toward the tent flap. Please, God. Let this work. I must walk with confidence. Gracefully. Head down so no one sees the dark cast of my skin. I inhale deeply and wait for my heart to still. Behind me, the bedding pops; a glowing spark bounces at my feet, then blackens into dust.

  I force my mind to stillness. Do not think, Elisa. Just do. I part the tent flap and stride into the firelit night. The flap falls shut, disguising the growing conflagration inside. I quick-step forward, placing my legs just so, the way Humberto taught me. It’s the best approximation of grace I’ll ever manage, and I hope it is enough. Inviernos look up at me as I pass, but I ignore them, striding with purpose. I feel their wild eyes on my back. The Godstone goes cold.

  “My lord,” someone says in acknowledgment. I give the briefest nod, keeping the cowl tight, and continue on. Surely he will see that I am not slender. Not graceful.

  I weave through fire pits, around bedrolls, toward the comforting blackness of the hills, listening for someone to cry out in warning. I am almost there.

  Something odd catches my attention, off to my left. Something out of place. I allow the slightest turn of my head. It’s a man. Dressed not in furs, but in the robes of the desert people. His hair is black and unclumped, his skin is dark. He scrapes food from a bowl, and I cannot see his face, but my chest burns with the implication. One of Joya’s own, eating with the enemy. There are no ropes or chains that I can see. No animagus nearby to force him into magical paralysis. One of the others, a pale, muddy-haired Invierno, pats him on the back. He looks up and smiles. My legs turn to water; I gasp out a sob.

  It is Belén.

  Chapter 22

  WE were not discovered. Belén told them where to find us. The animagus’s words return to me: “The three who escaped . . . ” I had worried that someone had been captured or killed.

  The hand grasping the knife shivers with rage. If I kill anyone tonight, it should be Belén. Maybe, dressed as I am, I could walk right up to him.

  But I reject the idea as soon as it comes. He would recognize me, of course, and I would never escape. The things I have learned must be shared. I do not have the luxury of vengeance.

  “My lord?” someone says at my elbow.

  I have tarried too long. Maybe they heard my gasp of surprise. Hands still shaking, I move away from the one who spoke, hoping he attributes my action to the arrogance of an animagus.

  A few more steps to reach the dark. I will have to feel my way up the cliff, but after climbing down from the cave at spear point, I think I can do it. I must do it. The robe should be discarded. It will be too bright against the cliff face. Maybe I should aim for the cave again. I think longingly of my pack, with its food and water. But the cave is probably under guard now that it’s been discovered, and I have no way of finding it in the dark anyway. I will have to do without.

  I step quietly out of the firelight. The cliff face looms before me, gradually inclining at the base, then steepening into darkness. I brush against a juniper branch, feel its whispering needles against my cheek, smell its tangy pine scent. I duck behind it to remove the robe.

  Shouting rings through the valley, hurried and fierce. I peer through the branches. In the distance, one of the fires flares brighter, higher than the others. It’s the animagus’s tent. The Inviernos closest to my hiding place scramble to their feet and run toward it.

  I must move now.

  I drop the robe, but the last thing I want to do is leave a marker of my escape route. Even if I climb the cliff unnoticed, it won’t take long for them to figure out what happened and give chase. I pause long enough to yank the white braid free of the robe and shove it into my waistband. Then I cover the robe as best I can with dirt and pine needles.

  While the enemy scrambles to put out the fire, I sprint for the cliff. Climbing is easy at first, and I only use my hands occasionally, but the incline steepens, and soon I’m on all fours, my fingers sliding around, searching the dark for handholds. A root here, a ledge there. The skin of my legs burns from chafing against urine-soaked pants. My fingernails fill with dirt, my shoulders burn, the fleshy areas beneath my thumbs harden with cramping until I can hardly grip. Something scuttles across my hand. I wrench it back. Breath-stealing pain shoots up my finger; warm liquid oozes over the webbing of my fingers, across my palm. I’ve ripped off a fingernail.
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