The girl of fire and tho.., p.3
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.3

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
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Page 3

  Author: Rae Carson

  The mattress shudders as Alejandro settles his weight next to me. I hear his forced breath as he extinguishes the candles on his side. Suddenly I feel warm lips on my cheek. “I almost forgot. Happy birthday, Lucero-Elisa,” he whispers.

  I sigh into the dark. I thought the worst thing that could happen would be for my new husband to turn away from me in disgust. I was wrong. It is so much worse that he listens to me, sees me. That, in addition to being beautiful, he is kind.

  It will be too, too easy to love him.

  I am awake, eyes wide, heart fluttering, long after the last candle on the mantel flickers out, long after the man next to me settles into the steady, even breathing of sleep.

  Our carriage heads a long procession that awaits beyond the cobbled courtyard. King Alejandro’s personal guards stand tall beside it, their dark faces inscrutable. To reach them, we must pass the fountains and the jacaranda trees, through a gauntlet of nobles and servants armed with birdseed and rose petals. Alejandro reaches out to take my hand, but Papá grabs me first and enfolds me in an embrace.

  “Elisa,” he whispers into my hair. “I will miss you. ”

  It nearly undoes me. In the last day or two, I have had more affection from my father than in the entire year previous. He is always so busy, so distant. Is it only by giving me up that he finds it in himself to care?

  “I’ll miss you too,” I manage, and the words cut hard with their truth. I know I’ll never be as dear to him as Alodia, but I love him just the same.

  He releases me, and my sister glides forward. She wears a simple gown of blue silk layers that drop beautifully from slender shoulders, and her face is perfect and composed, like a sculpture. It nears mine—I smell her jasmine perfume—and I see tiny lines around her brown eyes. Worry lines. Strange that I have not noticed them before.

  Alodia grips my shoulders with strong fingers. “Elisa,” she whispers. “Listen well. ”

  Something about her manner, the intensity of her gaze perhaps, causes me to block out the sounds of tinkling fountains and buzzing crowds to focus on her voice.

  “Trust no one, Elisa, save Alejandro and Nurse Ximena and Aneaxi. ” Her voice is pitched so low, I doubt even our father can hear. I nod, feeling suddenly warm, and the Godstone flashes hot and hard. Is it a warning? “I’m sending pigeons with you,” she continues. “Use them if you need to contact me quickly. When you arrive, do not be afraid to assert yourself. Do not be afraid to be queen. ”

  She places her cheek against mine and strokes my hair, sighing. “Be well, Elisa, little sister. ”

  I just stand there, stunned. My husband grips my hand and pulls me through the crowd of well-wishers toward our carriage. I know I should look up and smile. I should show the nobility a final, glorious view of their princess as she rides off into eternal happiness. It’s what Alodia would do. But my vision is too blurred with tears, my face too hot, because my sister hasn’t embraced me that way since we were children in the nursery together.

  The carriage step is too high to navigate comfortably. The foreign guards look on as Alejandro steps in and then pulls me up beside him. I give him a grateful smile, noticing the birdseed and rose petals that have stuck in his black hair. I put a hand to my head and wonder how long it will take for Ximena to brush the mess from my own hair. My nurse is already ensconced with Lady Aneaxi in the rearmost carriage, and suddenly, I can’t wait to see them again, to let them fuss over me. I resolve to seek them out at my earliest opportunity.

  The seat is plush blue velvet, but it lurches hard against my rear as we set off. The nobleza d’oro cheers heartily, and for a moment, the air is a haze of seed and flowers and mad waving. The carriage window sits high enough that I can see across the courtyard, over the celebrating horde, to my father and sister. The morning sun is high now, casting a golden glow on the adobe of my sprawling palace, on the walls of beautiful Amalur. I drink in the sight of archways with their green creepers, of cobbled paths and tiled fountains. Mostly, though, I am transfixed by my sister. Her eyes are closed and her lips move as if in prayer. The sun shimmers against her cheeks, against the moisture there.

  Chapter 3

  ALEJANDRO seems content to bear my company in silence. I fold my hands into my lap to keep them still and pretend to be indifferent while the carriage rattles away from my home. I imagine all the ways to start a conversation. Alodia always comments about shipyard construction, or the price of wool, but such topics would feel odd in my mouth. I should ask him about our marriage, and why my sister demands such caution, but I find it less frightening just to be silent.

  The carriage lurches to a stop. The door swings open. Sunlight pours in around the enormous silhouette of a bodyguard, and I raise my forearm against the glare. Confused, I turn to my husband.

  “It’s all right, Elisa,” he says. “The guard will show you to your carriage. ”

  My carriage? I try to puzzle this through. “My . . . ”

  “It would be foolish for my wife and me to travel in the same carriage. ”

  My face tingles at his words—“my wife”—even as I parse his meaning. I’ve read of such things. In times of war, important figureheads must never consolidate targets. I nod and take the guard’s hand. A rough hand, strong and unkind.

  “I’ll check in on you when we stop to eat,” my husband says.

  We step down and away from the carriage, the unkind guard and I, and he leads me toward the back of our dusty procession. Plumeria trees, heavy with white blossoms, border the road, and I can no longer see the palace. My mind whirls with analysis, as if I were in Master Geraldo’s study again, engrossed in the Belleza Guerra.

  Never consolidate targets.

  I freeze and look up at the guard. His face is youthful and handsome, in spite of its hard lines and sculpted mustache. Irritation flickers in dark eyes, but he composes himself quickly. “My lady, we must get you to your carriage. ” His voice is rough and strained, as if speech comes rarely.

  Do not be afraid to be queen, Alodia had said. “You will address me as Your Highness. ” My voice is steady and confident, like my sister’s. I feel ridiculous. “After the coronation, you will address me as Your Majesty. ”

  He raises one brow. “Of course, Your Highness. Forgive me. ” But his look is skeptical, mocking.

  “What is your name?”

  “Lord Hector, of His Majesty’s personal guard. ”

  “I’m glad to meet you. ” I flash a courteous smile, the way Alodia would. “Lord Hector, what are we in danger from?”

  My face warms and my heart drums in my chest. At any moment, he’ll recognize this bluff of insane confidence.

  But his brow softens, and he nods. “It is not my place to give details, Highness. But I will mention your question to His Majesty. ”

  I can’t bring myself to prod further. He ushers me toward the back, where my ladies have already opened their carriage door. It’s covered in dust from being at the rear, but their arms are outstretched, waiting to help me step up.

  They want to know why I do not travel with my husband. Awkwardness is common at first, they assure me. Don’t worry. You’ll adjust to each other soon enough. I grit my teeth, frustrated with their blind assurances but grateful for them just the same. I look down, unable to explain.

  The carriage pitches as we set off again. It’s hotter inside, and my skin becomes sticky. Were I athletic like Alodia, I’d get out and walk. I wonder if this is why my husband does not care to travel with me. Perhaps there is no danger at all.

  I am married to a stranger, and no one has bothered to tell me why, other than to make vague references to a treaty. Surely the fact that I bear the Godstone has something to do with it. But since no one is forthcoming, I will have to find out for myself.

  As Ximena wipes my damp forehead with her linen skirt, as Aneaxi pours me some cool wine from a traveling skin, I pray silently,
asking God to make me a little stronger, a little braver.

  Our route lies through the jungle of the Hinders, the mountains dividing our two countries. True to his word, the king checks on me regularly. At meal stops, he asks detailed questions about my comfort. Are your cushions thick enough? Would you prefer your carriage to take a turn at the head of the procession? Is the wine to your liking? He is sweetly attentive, always taking my hand and looking me in the eye, like he truly cares.

  In response to the question I asked Lord Hector, my husband tells me the jungle is a dangerous place, crawling with the descendants of convicts who were tossed into the wild a century ago when Joya’s prisons overflowed. But we cannot risk a sea voyage this near to the hurricane season.

  Master Geraldo spoke of these Perditos, the lost ones of the jungle. My teacher said they stayed far away from the highway, so I’m not sure I believe Alejandro.

  Sometimes our path is steep enough that my back rests comfortably against the boards of the carriage wall and I am able to doze in spite of the constant lurching. But after a while, desert cactuses and royal palms give way to golden rain trees, dripping yellow teardrops. The seed pods clunk onto the carriage roof at irregular intervals, making it impossible to nap. At night, I sleep fitfully in a large tent with my ladies.

  The jungle rages with noise. Screaming birds, chittering spider monkeys, and buzzing insects all battle for attention. The wind cannot penetrate the foliage to cool us as we travel, but we hear it, whooshing through the canopy above. It is, truly, the most deafening place I’ve ever been.

  On the morning of day four, the jungle goes silent. It happens so suddenly, so profoundly, that I peer around the curtain, expecting to find that God has whisked us to another time and place. But the silk-cotton trees still loom above me, their dark buttresses impenetrable in the filtered light. The same palm fronds twist desperately around them, seeking sunlight.

  Two carriages ahead, Lord Hector drops from the roof to the ground, sword in hand.

  Our procession has been large and clamorous with its carriage wheels, snorting horses, and clanking armor. Yet the jungle never saw fit to honor us with silent fear. Beside me, Lady Aneaxi mutters in prayer.

  Then, far away at first, a drumbeat resounds. I can’t pinpoint its direction, but the echoing thrum makes a cavern of my chest. It thunders again, closer.

  The carriage jerks to a stop.

  No.

  Alejandro’s guard has acted on instinct. They sensed danger and stopped the procession to establish a perimeter defense. The foliage hugs our path; were I to reach from the carriage window, my fingertips could flutter the drooping palm leaves. An unseen enemy could spear me just as easily.

  Ahead is a slight clearing in the jungle where the trees retreat from the road.

  “Lord Hector!” I call, heart pounding. He glances at me; his chest rises with a long, controlling breath. But I know I’m right in this. The Belleza Guerra devotes whole passages to sizing up an enemy’s approach. “Make for the clearing ahead. We must be able to see them coming!”

  He nods and shouts an order as another drumbeat thrums beneath my breastbone. The horses huff and prance in response, but they pull us forward, toward the clearing.

  “Aneaxi. Ximena. We must get down, away from the windows. ” The carriage wobbles as they comply. We are an awkward threesome, barely able to squeeze into the floor space between benches.

  “His Majesty’s guard is the finest in the world,” Aneaxi insists breathily. “We are in little danger. ” But her hand bruises mine with its grip.

  With my free hand, I trace the line of the trapdoor until I can finger the latch. The thought of leaving the carriage frightens me, and I envision the three of us smacking the ground. I hope Aneaxi is right, that there is little danger.

  The drums beat faster now, louder. My shoulder crashes into a bench as the carriage heaves. I don’t dare lift myself to peer out the window, but I hope we’ve reached the clearing. I hear running footsteps and Lord Hector’s muffled orders, then the metal-scraping-metal sound of drawn steel.

  Something thunks against the carriage. And again. Soon it’s like a rain of stones cracking against wooden walls. I hear a thud against the wall near my head. The shining black point of an arrowhead pokes through, a mere handsbreadth from my nose. My skin burns. The air is too hot, too stifling to breathe. The Godstone in my navel flashes ice cold, and I gasp, astonished. It has never gone cold before.

  The paneling beneath my palms feels sun warmed. Too warm. The acrid scent of burning wood tingles in my nose as the Godstone continues to throb its icy warning.

  Aneaxi whimpers, “Fire!” as our carriage fills with smoky haze and the shouting outside becomes frenzied.

  “The princess!” someone yells. “To the princess!” But the voice is far off.

  I search across the paneling for the latch to the trapdoor again. It opens downward, and we tumble through into the cooler, cleaner air beneath the carriage. I land on something that cracks beneath my weight. Aneaxi screams.

  I don’t have time to worry about how badly I’ve hurt her. The horses catch the scent of smoke and dance in their harnesses. We could be pinned beneath the wheels at any moment. I yearn for a knife to cut the horses free, to feel some kind of power in my hand. The carriage lurches forward. Behind me and to my left, I see Aneaxi’s leg, cricked unnaturally, lying in the path of the wheel.

  I feel sick. “Aneaxi, you must pull your leg in. ”

  “I can’t!” she sobs.

  I hook her armpit and pull. Ximena does the same on the other side, but Aneaxi is large and I have never been strong. A horse rears. The carriage jerks. Panicked, Ximena and I wrench Aneaxi toward us, but we are at such an awkward angle, pressed against the ground, and oh, it is not enough.

  Steel rings, and the carriage shudders. Someone has sliced through the harnesses, and tears of relief prick my eyes.
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