The girl of fire and tho.., p.33
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.33

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
Page 33

  Author: Rae Carson

  Our desert robes are nondescript, appropriate for penitents seeking a boon through the sacrament of pain. Cosmé and Humberto pull up their cowls to avoid recognition as we file in with pious decorum. We spread out to avoid suspicion, and the low murmuring of prayer begins to fill the room, rising and falling in soft cadence. My Godstone buzzes with warmth.

  Near the waiting altar, a priest’s bowed head snaps up. He scans the growing crowd.

  I lower my head and huddle behind Cosmé as she works her way forward, cursing myself for forgetting something so important. Hiding at her back is a futile gesture, for she is dainty and I am not, but the priest continues his scan, unable to pinpoint my location. With as understated a motion as possible, I grab her elbow and force her into the nearest bench row. We sit down as one, our thighs brushing.

  She whispers, head lowered, “We were supposed to separate and—”

  “The priest can sense my Godstone. Just like Alentín and Nicandro. I dare not get any closer. ”

  A slight intake of breath. Then: “You should go. Leave as soon as people rise to accept the invitation. ”

  I start to nod, but I then I get a better idea. “We could use my Godstone as a distraction. ”

  “You think you can do that?” she mutters.

  “I can. At the end of the ceremony, you and the others will head toward the kitchens. I’ll go out the rear door toward the dormitory and pray to draw their attention. ”

  Her cowled head leans closer and her forehead brushes mine when she whispers, “You’re sure you want to do this?”

  “I do. I’ll meet you back at the boardinghouse. ” I’m almost sure I can find my way alone.

  “They’ll know the bearer is here. ”

  “It’s already too late to hide the fact from them. ”

  A sobering thought, and we wait in nervous silence through the preservice rituals. The priest leads us in the “Glorifica,” and it takes all my willpower to not raise my soul in worship at the lyrical beauty of it. Any thought of worship or prayer will cause the stone inside me to flare in joyous response, so I concentrate instead on coconut scones with cream filling, trying to remember the exact taste and texture on my tongue.

  I thrum my fingers against the bench as the priest raises a sacred rose, with its enormous thorns, above his head and launches into a hymn of deliverance. At last he invites all who wish to partake in the sacrament of pain to step forward. Mara rises from her spot a few benches ahead. I recognize several others from our group. Cosmé and Humberto remain seated, for fear of recognition. In this prayerless moment, I feel bereft and darkly wrong.

  Finally the ceremony concludes. The remaining petitioners have their bleeding fingers tended to while the head priest—still scanning the crowd in obvious agitation—offers extra prayer and counseling to the needy. Some of our group move forward to corner the priest with bogus appeals, while others inch toward the side door leading to the kitchen and stables.

  I stand, my mind firmly on pastries, and edge toward the dormitories. From the corner of my eye, I see Mara’s tall form shrouding the nearest priest with clever solicitude. I can’t help but grin as I duck into a cool, dark archway.

  But my grin disappears when I see a branching corridor. Two directions to choose from, both gloomy. Heart pounding, I decide on the one that doubles back toward the entrance. Though I said nothing of it to Cosmé, getting caught here could mean my life. Father Alentín told me the priests of this monastery are supporters of the Godstone rather than of the bearer, and it’s possible they would rip the stone from my navel given the chance.

  I hurry down the corridor, straining to see through the murkiness. Footsteps patter in the distance; I hope they are nothing more than petitioners exiting the receiving room, but it’s impossible to know. At last I reach a wood beam door with iron hinges and an arched apex. The handle is cold in my palm as I begin to pray.

  God, please help me distract the priests.

  The Godstone leaps in greeting, shooting sparks of warmth. I pull the door open.

  Please keep my friends safe. Let them be successful.

  A rush of fresh, warm air bathes my face. I step outside onto a brick street. Torches pour bronzed light onto the walkway at regular intervals. Ahead is a cluster of robed petitioners, laughing together with that familiar sound of release that so often follows the sacrament of pain. I’m even nearer the original entrance than I thought.

  Thank you, God, for this lovely city. If it be your will, please spare it from destruction.

  “I feel it again!” A male voice, distant but urgent. “This way!”

  I squat down behind a low bush lining the wall—blooming hibiscus, my nose tells me—and try to think of scones again. But the Godstone persists as if I am still praying.

  I think about the animagus, his white blond hair and blue eyes, the way he slithered, catlike, around his candle- smothered altar.

  The Godstone freezes.

  Hinges squeal as the door I just exited flies open. Feet patter by, at least two pairs, though I do not dare raise my head to look.

  “I felt it,” one says. “I swear it. ”

  Eyes like ice, the amulet in his long, lovely hand glowing with wicked fire . . .

  “I believe you. I felt it too. ” More footsteps. “Nothing now, though. ”

  “Maybe we went the wrong direction?”

  White-quartz robes, face smoother than a child’s . . .

  “Maybe. ” But doubt fills the voice. “Let’s try the dormitory. ”

  They patter away, the door closes, and still I remain hunched behind the hibiscus bush, my nose tickled by what I hope is not a spiderweb. I very nearly pray with relief.

  I squat until the arches of my feet are numb and my neck aches. Then I rise, slowly and carefully, and walk down the street with forced carelessness, toward the boardinghouse. It’s the longest walk of my life.

  I’m the first to arrive. I spend the next hour luxuriating in fervent prayer for the safety of my companions. Gradually they trickle in—Mara first, then our two young bowmen. Jacián arrives, harried but gleeful. Carlo, the trapper, and his little brother, Benito, follow. We wait long, tense moments before Bertín’s smiling face fills the doorway. And finally, just when we are beginning to lose hope, Cosmé and Humberto stumble in, exhausted but grinning.

  All ten of us, returned safely. And successful, judging from the looks of triumph. It is so much more than I had hoped for. We collapse together in a muddle of laughter and tears, overwhelmed with relief.

  It is far from over. The supply train must reach Invierne successfully. It must poison enough of their warriors that they connect their illness to the conde’s tribute and enact retribution. We must parlay with Treviño.

  And the priests of Basajuan have felt the presence of the bearer.

  But tonight, we glory in our little success.

  Chapter 27

  WE wait three days before declaring ourselves to the conde—time enough for the tribute to reach the amassed army of Invierne. We debate the best way to present ourselves to Treviño.

  “What if we went publicly?” Mara suggests.

  Cosmé nods thoughtfully. “If we announced ourselves publicly, it would make killing or capturing us very awkward for him. ”

  “Only at first,” I say. “He could always do it later. At a time when his court isn’t watching. ”

  Cosmé smirks. “At first is all we need. Once word reaches him of the bad shipment, it will be too late for him. ”

  “So we surprise him during the receiving hour,” Jacián says, pursing his lips. “We must do it in a way that builds sympathy for our cause. ”

  Humberto frowns. “This is out of my realm of experience,” he says. “I’m a shepherd’s son. ”

  Mara holds up a hand. “I’m just a village cook. ”

  “Times like this,” Cosmé points out,
“a princess comes in handy. ”

  As one, they all turn to me. I smile weakly, thinking of the times I skipped out on court functions, assured that Alodia would handle everything.

  “Er . . . well, I think it’s important to make a show of confidence and strength. ” A safe, general observation.

  “You mean like dressing nicely?” Mara asks.

  Why didn’t I think of that? “Yes, exactly. ”

  “I really need to fix your hair,” Mara adds, “so it’s not so . . . ” She makes an obscure gesture with her hands.

  I glower at her.

  Cosmé considers. “And we need to get you something else to wear. ”

  I glower at her too. “I hate corsets,” I mumble.

  “Not a corset,” Cosmé says. “Riding leathers, like the guards wear. Maybe a cloak. We can’t go in armed, but an empty quiver across your back would be very telling. A sword belt. ”

  I stare at her.

  “You must look like a warrior, Elisa. ” But Cosmé’s lip trembles with trying to keep a straight face. “You must make enough of an impression that it will be very difficult for the conde to make you disappear. ”

  The rest of our companions look on in shrinking silence.

  I throw up my hands. “Do what you think is best. ”

  The conde’s palace is much smaller than Alejandro’s, but finely crafted in pastel-hued limestone and the familiar tile pattern of yellow-and-blue flowers. All of us have come, save Carlo, who will return to the Malficio if he does not hear from us before a week has passed. We are dressed in the finest weaves our sheepskins and coin could buy. My riding leathers creak with every step. They are tight against my chest, the curve of my waist, my thighs. Only the skin of my neck and arms remains uncovered, yet I feel exposed and vulnerable without my shapeless robes.

  The petitioners in line around us keep a cautious distance. I look at my companions, trying to see them through the eyes of a stranger. Though we are all young, our skin is tanned and weathered, our hair bleached with red streaks from the sun. We stand straight, with resolve and with the strength that comes from being able to walk for days on end. Still sated with our recent victory at the monastery, my friends return the surreptitious looks cast their way with unflinching cool.

  “What are you smiling at?” Humberto whispers in my ear.

  “Look at us. We seem far more fearsome than we actually are. ”

  He grins. “Cosmé and Mara did an excellent job outfitting us. But think about it—we are fearsome. We are the Malficio. ”

  The crowd’s motion propels us forward a few steps through the corridor. “I’m glad the line is moving quickly,” I tell him.

  “And I’m glad the crowd behind us blocks my escape,” he responds in perfect understanding.

  “It’s easier,” I say. “With you here. ”

  He says nothing, just studies my eyes, my lips, my neck. With the buzzing crowd so thick around us, it’s almost like being alone. “Elisa,” he murmurs. The soft pad of his thumb brushes my shoulder. “I think there is a way. ”

  “What do you mean?” I could stand here forever with him.

  “You said if there were a way to be free of him”—his thumb skims my collarbone, reaches the hollow of my throat—“you would do it. ”

  I feel a little dizzy. Is it possible? Could I be free of Alejandro? The line of petitioners pushes us forward. “I can’t think about this now!” I put my palm—so briefly—to his face. “But we will discuss it. I promise. ”

  He gifts me with that easy smile of his, so familiar now, and so dear. Something unfurls inside of me, like a blooming sacrament rose. And I realize I love him.

  “What?” he whispers. “What is it?”

  My heart is so full it aches. “I’ll tell you later!”

  I turn my back on him and the topic, but my chest stings with delightful hope. So when it is finally our turn to enter the receiving hall and the bored herald asks who he should announce next, my tone is high and sure as I say, “I am Lady Elisa of the Malficio, here by His Grace’s invitation. ”

  The herald’s eyes spark with sudden interest. He taps on the double doors with his staff. They open inward, and we stride into a wide receiving hall while he repeats my words for the assembled court.

  I hear gasps from both sides, feel the hot stares on my shoulders. My confidence dribbles away as the pressure of so many people bears down on me. How can an enclosed space contain so many bodies? I smell them acutely, their floral perfumes, the twice-breathed air. I’ve been in the desert far too long.

  “So, Lady Elisa of the Malficio,” says a high, clear voice. The Godstone cools.

  I peer in the direction of the sound. At the end of the aisle, several fierce retainers step aside, revealing a small, fair-skinned man on a throne. His black hair is plastered shiny on his skull, with flat-sculpted curls that wrap around his ears and spiral against his brow. His eyes are sharp and dark, his chin dainty, like a girl’s. Like Cosmé’s. He looks so much younger than I imagined.

  He wears a gaudy golden pendant from a chain around his neck, large as my spread hand. It’s a peculiar and grotesque design, like a rotting flower, yet it’s familiar somehow.

  “Your Grace,” I say loudly, remembering at the last instant to bow. Behind me, the others do the same. I wonder if the conde will recognize Cosmé, but she is cowled and his regard is focused on me. I pull his rolled parchment from my leather belt and brandish it high. “We come at your summons, Your Grace. To discuss an alliance, as you requested. ”

  His cheek twitches and his hands turn white as they clutch the armrests. “It would be untoward to discuss such things here, of course. I’ll have the guards show you to the guest rooms. ” He flicks his fingers at one of the stony-faced retainers, then rewards us with a syrupy smile. “Please rest. Make yourselves comfortable. Order food and drink from the kitchens if you like. I will send for you after the lunch hour. ”
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