The girl of fire and tho.., p.29
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.29

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
Page 29

  Author: Rae Carson

  I hold the first bite in my mouth, letting the juice from the meat burst across my tongue. I almost shudder. I remember our last loaf of bread the night before we found Invierne’s army, squashed from riding in Belén’s pack. Belén.

  “Father, I must tell you something else. Belén . . . has he returned?”

  He swallows a mouthful. “He has not. Jacián returned—he’s hunting now—but not Belén. Cosmé is worried for him. ”

  I take a deep breath. “He may have betrayed us. ”

  He leans forward, eyes sharp. “What do you mean?”

  I describe what happened, what I saw in the camp of our enemy.

  “You’re certain?”

  “I’ve asked myself every hour of every day if there is a way I could be wrong, Father. He was not being held against his will. He moved freely in the camp. I saw . . . camaraderie between him and the Inviernos. And there’s no other explanation for how they knew where to find us. My companions are all highly skilled. I’m certain we didn’t give our location away by accident. ”

  He ponders, searching my eyes. “If we take this to the village, it will be your word against his. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “The village might listen to you, though Belén is one of their own. You are the bearer. And you have slain an animagus. ”

  “I didn’t actually see the body—”

  “If you called for it, he would be executed. ”

  I swallow. “I don’t want that. I want to give him an opportunity to help. To tell us what he knows. ”

  Alentín nods. “Then I will spread the word, quietly, that Belén is to be held for questioning if he returns. And we will double our perimeter guard. We are prepared to flee this place at the earliest sign of attack. ”

  It’s as good a plan as any. I turn my full attention to my plate.

  We all work hard during the next weeks, for we can’t be sure how much time we have before Invierne begins its march. Our “gossips” return from the villages with news that rumors of the Malficio are at full strength. Some of them bring trusted friends and family members with them. A village nearby is razed to the ground by animagi, and we rally to collect the survivors. Our number swells to more than eighty, and I am relieved to add a solid contingent of adults to our group.

  Then something happens that I hadn’t anticipated: Word trickles in of attacks upon the enemy that were not orchestrated by our group. Other villages, other hidden camps of refugees, have adopted our strategy. They harry the army all along its formidable length, striking and retreating only to strike again. The curse of the Malficio has fed on itself, become a living thing all its own.

  But there is no sign of Belén. Humberto finally confides that Belén and Cosmé had promised to marry, should they survive the war. My former maid is more distant than ever, and my heart aches for her.

  Then one day a shout rings out from the perimeter, and moments later a sentry hauls a blindfolded captive into our village. He’s a thin-boned, younger man wearing the same desert robes I’ve grown accustomed to. But a closer look reveals a fine weave, a brighter white, and a sash with embroidered gold threads. He claims to have a message for the leader of the Malficio.

  We drag him deep into the cavern where he cannot see the village and its surroundings. A small group of onlookers gathers around us, blocking any escape. While Jacián and the sentry hold him by the shoulders, I rip off the blindfold.

  “You have a message?” I ask. My voice has acquired a dangerous edge, born of responsibility and worry. It’s a voice I’m not sure I like.

  “I am to give it only to the leader of the Malficio,” he says, and I have to credit him for his unflinching gaze and a head held high.

  “You do not speak with the accent of the desert people,” I say.

  “I am not from the desert. ”

  “How did you come here?”

  He deflates just a little. I well understand that feeling of utter exhaustion barely held in check. “I have traveled for almost three weeks, asking for the Malficio. I heard in the villages that I should seek southward, nearer the desert. Please tell me I’ve finally arrived. I thought, maybe, with the blindfold—”

  “You have reached the Malficio. ”

  “Oh, thank God. Are you their leader?” He peers at me in dismay.

  “I am. ”

  Jacián growls in warning as the messenger reaches beneath his sash. “It’s not a weapon,” he says, smiling shakily. He retrieves a leather pouch, squashed flat, and fumbles with the ties. From inside, he pulls out a roll of parchment, also flattened but still sealed in bright red wax.

  The people around me gasp in recognition of the seal. My fingers shake as I slide my thumbnail through the wax and unroll the parchment. I read. Then I read it again to be sure. My heart pounds as I raise my eyes.

  “It’s from Conde Treviño,” I tell them. The traitor. Condesa Ariña’s father. “He wishes to discuss an alliance. ”

  Chapter 24

  “IT’S a trap,” Humberto growls, staring at the earthen floor.

  “I have to agree,” Jacián says.

  We are gathered in my adobe hut with Cosmé and Father Alentín to discuss the conde’s mysterious summons. Mara has made my favorite dish tonight—lamb shanks roasted in coals and sliced thin, then rolled with a batter of bread and onions, garlic and pine nuts. I eat slowly.

  Father Alentín is nodding. “The conde has proven treacherous,” he says. “He gives the fruit of his people’s labor into the hands of Invierne. He refuses to defend the villages. He may have promised to deliver you to the enemy. ”

  “Why?” I ask. “What does he have to gain?”

  “Who knows?” Humberto says, throwing up his hands. “Promise of amnesty. A place in the new government, perhaps. ”

  I narrow my eyes, thinking. “But it is possible, just possible, that he truly wishes to discuss an alliance. ” When I look around for confirmation, only Cosmé does not meet my gaze.

  Humberto’s face twitches. “Elisa, please don’t go. ”

  “If there is a chance the conde is willing to aid us, don’t you think it worth the risk?” I’d like to go to Basajuan for other reasons too. A city that size would have news of Brisadulce and Alejandro, maybe even a reply from Ximena. But I keep that to myself.

  “The conde thinks he’s doing the right thing,” Cosmé whispers. She’s been silent most of the evening. “He thinks he is saving the lives of his people by treating with the enemy. ” There is something depthless about her eyes in the candlelight. We stare at her collectively, but her delicate features remain frozen.

  Humberto reaches forward and clasps his sister’s hand. A pang of envy shoots through my chest and leaves me feeling empty. “Cosmé,” Humberto says gently. “Would the conde betray Elisa if he thought it would help his people?”

  “Absolutely. ”

  Jacián rocks back on his heels, sighing. “It concerns me that his messenger found us so easily. ”

  “The messenger says he is merely one of many who were sent,” Alentín points out. “Maybe he was luckier than the others. ”

  “Or someone told him where to find us,” Jacián counters.

  “What do you mean, someone?” Cosmé asks, her voice dark and silvery.

  Jacián leans toward her, unintimidated. “I mean Belén. He’s still out there. He probably told the conde all about us. Two traitors working together. ”

  “Belén would never—”

  “He already has. ”

  They glare at each other a long while. I can’t begin to understand how they feel. Though his treachery nearly resulted in my death, Belén was not a child playmate of mine. Not a future husband. For the hundredth time, I hope I am wrong. I put my fingertips to the Godstone and pray that I was misled, and that Belén, wherever he is, remains loyal to his friends and to our cause.

  Father Alentín b
reaks the tense silence. “We need to add to our numbers. As it stands, we can only harass one army. To be successful, we must make our presence known on both fronts. ”

  “Do you think the conde can help us? That he can be swayed?” I ask.

  He rubs the stump of his shoulder in thought, then shakes his head. “I don’t know, Elisa. But His Majesty, may his magnificent sword shatter the breasts of his enemies, must encounter two weakened armies to have a chance at victory. ”

  I chew on a meat roll and ponder his words while Cosmé and Jacián continue their mutual glare.

  When the idea comes, I almost choke. “What if . . . ” I hold up a hand to forestall talk while I chew and swallow as quickly as I can. “What if we force the conde into an alliance?” The meat roll is a lump in my chest. I hit my sternum with my fist.

  “What do you mean?” Humberto asks.

  “I mean we can force him to ally with us. If Invierne believes he has violated their agreement, he will have no choice. ”

  Cosmé’s black eyes narrow as a huge smile lights Jacián’s face. “The supply train,” Cosmé says.

  I nod. “The supply train. If we go to Basajuan and figure out how and when Condé Treviño pays his tribute, we can interfere. We’ll poison the food, lace the water with duerma leaf, anything we can think of. Invierne will think themselves betrayed. When Conde Treviño is most desperate, the Malficio will offer to aid him. ”

  “You’re mad,” Humberto says, but I see the resigned admiration in his face. “It just might work. ”

  “I hear a lot of ‘if’ in that plan,” the priest says. “If you can find out the details of the supply train. If you can infiltrate it. If you are not caught. If Invierne even gives the conde a chance to seek your aid rather than destroying him utterly at the first sign of betrayal. ”

  His words sober me. We no longer play games of war, and this is no small prank. Hundreds of Inviernos could die. Maybe more. And there is no way to anticipate the level of retaliation our people would face.

  “This is a war, Father,” Jacián says in that quiet voice, his face dark. I’m glad he is not my enemy. “The information we’ve gathered indicates Invierne will begin their march any day. When that happens, thousands will die. It is inevitable. Elisa’s plan gives us an opportunity to influence the course of this war. ”

  He speaks the truth, but I feel no better. How do I trade one group of lives for another? How do I endorse a plan that only might work? These are the decisions my father and sister have been making for years, the decisions Alejandro has been avoiding. Maybe I should distance myself, think of everyone as game pieces on a board. It’s too hard to think of them as people.

  Father Alentín shakes his head and mutters, “This will be unbelievably dangerous. Cosmé, do you think the conde would welcome you back?”

  “Ah, you mean if we declare ourselves rather than traveling in stealth?” I ask.

  He nods. “As far as the conde knows, Cosmé disappeared from the palace at the same time you did. ”

  “We have to assume the condesa contacted him regarding our disappearance,” Cosmé adds. “It would be very strange indeed for me to show up on his doorstep. ” Her voice drops a register. “But he would welcome me back. He always does. ” I peer into her conflicted face, trying to discern what it is I’m missing. For the first time since I’ve known her, she flinches away from my gaze.

  It’s not important for me to understand the history between Cosmé and the conde, so long as she can help us. “So you think you can get the information about the supply train that we’ll need?” I ask her.

  She looks up at me in surprise—or maybe gratitude—that I’ve chosen not to pry. “From the conde, no. But if my contacts are still in place, and if they’ll talk to me, then yes. The difficult part will be getting the information before the conde can spring his own trap. ”

  “Then we should arrive unannounced,” Humberto says. “Give ourselves a few days to ask around before presenting ourselves to Treviño. ”

  I nod. “We’ll leave in two days. How much duerma leaf have we harvested?”

  Humberto grins, his face cheerful once again, and I find myself grinning right back. “Enough to poison an army,” he says.

  “If we travel along the desert border,” Jacián says, “we won’t need to move in stealth. We can take the camels. ”

  I nod with false enthusiasm. It’s the best plan we have. But I dread the prospect of another painful journey with uncertain outcomes.

  We agree to a small contingent. If things go wrong, if it is a trap, the majority of the Malficio will remain behind to carry on. After much discussion, we settle on a group of ten. Twice the number of perfection.

  Father Alentín decides not to join us. “I fear the priests of the Monastery-at-Basajuan would be disinclined to welcome me back,” he tells me.

  “Why?” I ask, from curiosity rather than disappointment, for there is no other person I’d rather entrust the Malficio to in my absence.

  “We had some acute doctrinal differences. In regards to the bearer, mostly. They are pro-Godstone. I am pro-bearer. Had they found you, they would have ripped the stone from your navel. ”

  I narrow my eyes. “You’re afraid to see them again because of a doctrinal difference?”

  “Well, there was the small matter of my absconding with their oldest copy of the Afflatus—”
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