The girl of fire and tho.., p.35
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.35

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 35

  Author: Rae Carson

  I almost laugh. “When you first stole me away, you weren’t sure if I would prove useful to your cause. You wanted to tear the stone from my navel yourself. Remember?”

  Her breath catches. She whispers, “Humberto defended you. Remember? Don’t let that be for nothing. ”

  For a moment, the grief is a roiling black cloud. It’s going to smother me, sweep me away. My vision darkens.

  “Elisa!”

  I give a start, then I rise from the bed to pace, for stillness is dangerous. The walking motion pounds my injured stomach, and my Godstone feels heavier and harder than ever. But the pain is clearing my head. “I won’t give myself up,” I assure them.

  “Then what do we do?” asks shy Bertín. He is no more than thirteen, and still gangly, with too-large hands.

  “Benito and I will go to the conde tomorrow as expected. ” Strange that I have been so loathe to use a knife on a man. Now, I relish the prospect. “Tomorrow, I kill Treviño. ”

  The conde sends us a meager breakfast of thin oats and weak wine. I eat with everyone else, knowing I’ll need the strength. Moments later, I heave it all up into the garderobe.

  The conde summons us earlier than we expect.

  Our requests for water resulted in three bucketsful. We used one to rinse the blood from my vest and pants. So I am clothed in riding leather once again when the guards come to retrieve a terrified Benito and me. I look down at my vest as they shove me through the corridor. Damp leather is disgusting—musty and impenetrable as a second skin. But the stains, brownish black now, remind me of my purpose and brace me for what I must do.

  The conde is already in his office when we arrive, sitting at his lavish desk. He wears green with gold velvet trim today. The colors sallow his skin, but his hair is as luxuriantly black as ever. The same gaudy amulet dangles at his chest. My Godstone warms in response to it.

  “Lady Elisa, have you brought your friend to die?”

  I need him to move away from the desk, out into the open.

  “No, of course not. ” I hang my head in surrender. A stain on his rug stares back at me, a pool of ochre-brown marking the spot Humberto died in my arms.

  “Excellent. ” He rises from his chair. My heart hammers. “I know I sent for you early, and I apologize. I do prefer to be a man of my word. ”

  I refuse to look him in the eye for fear he’ll read the subterfuge there. “I was concerned that you had changed your mind, Your Grace. ”

  “About what?”

  “About not killing my companions if I told you the location of the Malficio’s camp. ”

  He steps toward me, a fatherly smile on his pretty face. “As I said, I prefer to be a man of my word. I summoned you early because I am expecting a very special guest, and I hope to be done with our business by then. You will be my proof, you see. Proof that I have bargained for peace. ” His grin widens; his black eyes spark with delight. “Is it not God’s will that all men live at peace? So says the Scriptura Sancta!”

  All of this is yet another act in service to God. I shudder, staring at the rug stains again to hide my reaction. I wonder what they did with the body. Tears spring to my eyes, and I let them flow. I must appear unbalanced. Weak.

  He takes another step forward. “So now you will tell me where you have been hiding all these months. ”

  I think of Jacián’s tiny dagger, hidden in my boot. Treviño is almost near enough.

  “Lady Elisa? If you say nothing, your friend will die. ”

  I realize with dismay that he’s not going to approach any closer. So I lurch forward and drop to my knees at his feet. Behind me, I hear the sound of a sword drawn. “Oh, Your Grace!” I sob. The tears flow so easily. “I need to hear it from your lips. ”

  “Hear what from my lips?” At least he doesn’t back away.

  And now I notice the daggers sheathed on the outsides of his boots. Longer blades than my own. “Tell me that if you learn what you need to know, you will spare the lives of my friends. ” I clutch his ankles in desperation. I slide my right foot forward for leverage.

  A knock sounds at the door. The guard tells Treviño something, but I’m not listening. I’m raising my arms toward his calves, toward the hilts of his daggers.

  “Yes, yes,” says the conde gleefully. “Show him in. He’ll want to witness this moment, I’m sure. ”

  I rip the daggers from their sheaths and launch upward. The blades are at his throat, just beneath his lovely chin, before he can blink.

  “Do not move,” I snarl. “Do not even consider moving. Tell your guards to back away from Benito or I will slit your throat. ” His huge pendant winks back at me. Solid gold and crudely crafted. It’s hard to tear my gaze away.

  “You are no warrior,” he says, but I see the fear in his eyes, for I have him trapped against his desk.

  “Do you remember the way my friend bled all over your rug? Do you remember the way his eyes turned glassy, like a flawed jewel?” Treviño is of medium height, like me, and dainty.

  I am not dainty. I press my knee into his groin and push the blades against his skin.

  His mouth opens. Closes. Then: “Do as she says. Back away from the boy. ” His upper lip quivers; his eyes widen. I should be glad to see him cower. But I’m merely disgusted.

  “Order the guards to free my friends. ”

  “Do it,” he hisses. “Do it now!” I hear footsteps as at least one guard exits the office.

  I know the guard will not really release my companions. And I know I don’t have much time; he’ll return soon with help, and an arrow will pierce my back. Or maybe a long-sword.

  “The Inviernos already know you’re here,” the conde says pleasantly. “I could help you escape. ”

  Maybe I should pretend to hear him out, just until I can figure out a way to free the others before I die.

  Another voice cuts in from behind me. “That won’t be necessary. ”

  I’m startled enough that the daggers wobble in my hands. I know that voice. Deep and confident. So familiar . . .

  “Is this the mutinous leader you spoke of?” says the voice. I don’t dare release the conde to face this new threat.

  Treviño swallows, the knob in his throat lurching beneath my blades. “Yes. ”

  I hear the whisper-slide of a sword pulled from a honing scabbard. This is it, I think. I should kill the conde now before I’ve lost the chance.

  “I’ll take it from here, Your Highness,” says the voice. A sword point lands atop my daggers with a soft plink. A tiny bubble of crimson rises where the blade meets the conde’s fair skin.

  My heart hammers in my throat, my breath comes too fast, but I force my hands to relax, to lower the daggers. Someone is saving me. Someone who called me “Your Highness. ”

  I step back, daggers at my side, and turn to my rescuer.

  “Hello, Elisa,” Lord Hector says, and his gaze on Treviño is unrelenting. “I’ve been searching for an excuse to put a sword to His Grace’s throat for years now, so I am in your debt. ”

  All the rage and grief and fear flow out of me until my body is limp. I stumble toward Lord Hector, wrap my arms around him.

  “Watch the daggers, Highness,” he says, patting my back awkwardly with his free hand.

  “Why are you doing this?” the conde exclaims. “The girl is a traitor!”

  Lord Hector’s hand has reached my unraveling braid. His fingers pause as they note the drying stickiness there. “Elisa is no traitor,” he says. “In fact, I think His Majesty will be much dismayed to learn you have been keeping his wife captive. ”

  Only then does it occur to me to wonder why my husband’s personal guard is here, so far from Brisadulce.

  I want to lock Conde Treviño in his own prison. Lord Hector patiently explains how it would be better to place him under house arrest, confining him to his suite. “Though we act with H
is Majesty’s authority, we still require the cooperation of Treviño’s people. ”

  “We will treat him with respect, then,” Benito adds. The look he turns on Lord Hector glows with hero worship.

  I know they are right. But just before the door closes on the conde’s livid face, I have an almost overwhelming desire to stab him after all. I settle for ripping the ugly amulet from his neck.

  Hector gives me a strange look. “This amulet,” I explain. “It feels familiar. My Godstone heats up every time I look at it. ”

  “It’s ugly,” Benito says.

  “Yes. I can’t imagine why our foppish conde chose to wear it. ” It’s heavy in my hand, and the four scallops feel rough, unfinished. My blood tingles.

  Lord Hector gives instructions to the guards. Then he takes my arm while Benito falls behind, and I’m reminded of that day long ago when he guided me and Ximena on a tour of my new husband’s palace. “So, Highness, you must tell me exactly how you came to be here,” he insists. “And how you came to be so . . . bold with the conde. ” It’s been so long since we’ve talked, and I can’t tell whether or not admiration tinges his voice.

  I hesitate at first, for I don’t care to see my companions punished for kidnapping me. But I’m bereft and exhausted, and I know he’ll learn the truth eventually. So I tell him about the kidnapping, our desert journey, and my discovery that the war had already begun. I explain how I came to trust and respect my companions, how I studied Homer’s Afflatus and formed the Malficio of wounded refugees and orphaned children. His eyes widen when I tell him about my capture by Inviernos. His jaw hangs slack when I describe how I killed the animagus, stole his amulet, climbed the cliff to escape, and used the Godstone to navigate to safety. And when I start to explain our plan to poison Treviño’s traitorous tribute, he stops short in the hallway.

  “That was you?”

  I make a careful study of the floor’s geometric stonework.

  “Elisa?”

  I sigh. “It was. We hoped to force Treviño into marshaling troops. It didn’t work out the way we planned. We were captured. Humb—my friend was killed. ” My voice is too flat to fool anyone. I glance up, looking for that sure-burning intelligence I remember. Sure enough, his eyes seem to whirl as he mulls over my words, draws conclusions.

  We start walking again. “Ximena and Nicandro never gave up, you know,” he says gently. It’s kind of him to change the subject, but hearing my nurse’s name makes it hard to hold my tears in check. “They insisted you were alive. Ximena was certain Ariña had something to do with your disappearance. ”

  Oh, I have so many questions! I want to hear all about Ximena and Father Nicandro and little Rosario. Even Alejandro. But we have reached the suite where my companions are being held captive. The guards peer at us in suspicion until they notice the crown seal that gathers Hector’s red cloak in folds across his shoulder. They straighten to immediate attention just as the Royal Guard declares, “Release the prisoners by order of His Majesty, King Alejandro de Vega!”

  They scramble all over one another to comply. The door opens. At the sight of Benito and me, the apprehension on the faces of my companions softens into wary hope.

  I make quick introductions. Everyone is perfectly polite in spite of the obvious questions in their eyes, though Cosmé looks ready to escape out the doorway at any moment. She did kidnap me, after all. Hector just smiles at her. “It’s nice to see you again, Cosmé,” he says.

  She wilts with visible relief and mumbles something in response.

  Hector looks around at our dour accommodations, then leans out the doorway. “Find suitable rooms for everyone in the guest wing,” he orders. “I want them located as near to my own suite as possible. ” He turns back to us. “Once everyone is settled and refreshed, we will meet. There is much to discuss and plan. ”

  Hector escorts me himself. “I already have a room picked out for you,” he says.

  I shrug. After traveling through the desert, any room would serve. “Hector, when we were in the conde’s office, you told him I was Alejandro’s wife. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “It’s not a secret anymore?”

  “The king made an announcement. Once the storm season was over and trade with Orovalle resumed, he had no choice. ”

  I ought to feel glad that he is finally acknowledging our marriage. But I feel nothing. I ask in a quiet voice, “And . . . how is he?” It seems proper that a wife should inquire about her husband.

  We stop outside a thick door. Hector looks down at me in sympathy. “He is well, Elisa. Occupied with planning for a war. Worried about you, I’m sure. But he’s well. ” He knocks.

  I stare at him, wondering why he’d knock on the door of the room he chose for me.

  He smiles. “She insisted on coming. So certain was she that Ariña and her father had something to do with your disappearance. ”

  I am beginning to process his words when the door opens and Ximena peers out.

  My heart is a warm, wet puddle as my nurse gawks at me. Her gray hair has whitened at the temples, her cheeks are more prominent, the lines around her eyes deeper. Fingers fly to her lips as tears spill from her eyes.

  “Oh, Elisa,” she breathes. “Oh, my sky. ” She wraps me in her arms and pulls me inside.

  I had forgotten what it was like to be so pampered. It’s an amazing thing to lean back in muscle-penetrating warmth while someone kneads your shoulders, lathers your scalp, caresses your skin with moistening herbs. She towels me off and wraps me in a soft robe before settling me on the edge of the bed to work through my hair.
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