The girl of fire and tho.., p.36
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.36

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 36

  Author: Rae Carson

  I close my eyes, savoring the occasional brushstroke that grazes my neck.

  “Did you get my message?” I ask.

  “What message?” I feel a tug as she rubs a dab of sunflower oil into the ends of my hair.

  “A few weeks ago, I sent you a note to let you know I was safe. ”

  “I left Brisadulce more than a month ago. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “Those clothes you were wearing,” Ximena says calmly. “They had blood all over them. ” She continues to brush steadily.

  I don’t dare open my eyes, and it’s a moment before I can speak. “Yes,” I manage. “Ximena, can I tell you about all of that another time, maybe?”

  “Of course, my sky. ” Her strokes are so gentle, drawn out as if she is relishing the feel of my hair in her hands. “You are different,” she says, though her tone holds no accusation.

  Yes. In so many ways. I decide to focus on the obvious. “The desert sucked some of the flesh right off of me. ”

  “No. ” Her brushing stalls. “I mean, yes. But it’s not that. It’s the way you hold yourself. The way you move. ”

  She braids my hair quickly, then dresses me in a soft green gown ordered from the storeroom. It’s a little too big at the waist, a bit snug around the breasts, and chilly compared to my desert robes or my riding leathers. But the look on Ximena’s face when she sees me in it silences any complaint.

  A guard comes to escort me to Lord Hector’s suite. Before I can walk out the door, Ximena grabs me and hugs me tight to her breast. I smile into her hair. “We have all night to catch up. All day tomorrow,” I whisper.

  She releases me and backs away, chin held high. “And I want to hear every detail. While you’re gone, I’ll find more clothes for you. ”

  I cast a glance at my pack, discarded against the fireplace. Everything I need is inside: an extra outer robe, a knife, a tinderbox, some underthings. But I suppose I’ll have to be a princess again. “Thank you, Ximena. I’ll see you soon. ”

  Hector’s room is only two doors down from mine. My desert companions and several of his own guards are already arrayed on cushions scattered throughout the suite when I arrive. They gape at me as I stand in the doorway, for I’m the only one in court finery. The rest chose newer, cleaner versions of their usual desert costume. Mara’s eyes go blank; Jacián looks down at his lap. I step inside, feeling a pang I’m not sure I understand.

  Hector inclines his head in greeting. “Now that the princess is here, we can begin. ”

  I settle on a cushion beside Cosmé before asking, “Lord Hector, could you start by explaining why you are here in Basajaun? I thought the king’s personal guard never left his side. ”

  “Not usually. His Majesty ordered the evacuation of Treviño’s holdings soon after you disappeared,” he says, his face grave. “He offered sanctuary behind the walls of Brisadulce to all the hill folk. But the conde refused. ”

  “Treviño believed he had bargained for peace,” Cosmé says.

  Hector nods. “So he said in the message we received. Condesa Ariña worked very hard to convince the king her father’s words were true. His Majesty hesitated to act a long time. Finally, other counsel won him over, and he ordered me here to oversee the evacuation firsthand. He had to send a member of the Quorum, someone who had the authority to seize the conde’s holdings if necessary. Ariña and I were the only members available. I arrived just yesterday. ”

  “And yesterday, the conde told you he had found a way to leverage for peace, once and for all,” I say.

  “Yes. He said he’d captured the leader of a treasonous rebellion. ” A darting smile quirks the edges of his mustache. “Someone the animagi were desperate to acquire. He thought if he offered you to Invierne as a gesture of good faith, they could resume trade and negotiations. Apparently, there was an incident that nullified their earlier agreement. Something about poisoned food stores. ”

  My companions glance at one another in discomfort, not understanding the merriment that flickers in Hector’s eyes.

  “A brilliant plan, brilliantly executed,” he finally concedes, nodding in respect. “I think it will work to our advantage after all. ”

  “So what next?” Cosmé asks. “I think we should get a message to Alentín and the Malficio and tell—”

  A knock resonates on the door. “Lord Hector!” calls a muffled voice. “It’s Captain Lucio. ”

  Concern edges his brow. He strides to the door and flings it open. “Captain?”

  I can’t see past the bulk of Hector’s shoulders, but I hear the captain’s voice loud and clear when he announces, “We’ve just received word, my lord. The army of Invierne marches against Joya d’Arena. ”

  PART III

  Chapter 29

  HECTOR asks me to return with him to Brisadulce. My mind is such a jumble, it’s hard to know what’s right. The Malficio need me, I tell myself, even though it’s not true. My people are perfectly capable of continuing on without me. But maybe I need them. I created them. They are mine, wholly separate from my sister or my husband. Something to be proud of. If I leave them, I’m only Elisa again.

  I try to imagine what it would be like to see Alejandro after all this time. If I close my eyes, I remember hair that curled at the nape of his neck, eyes that shone ruddy brown, but I still can’t summon the exact lines of his face to mind. The harder I try, the more my memory of him slips into fog. Different lines materialize then, a specter of swarthy skin and laughing eyes, a strong chin dusted with the beginnings of a beard.

  I don’t cry anymore. I’m too tired. Ximena knows something hurts my heart, but I can’t bring myself to talk about Humberto. Not yet.

  Cosmé is the one who convinces me to go. “If what Belén said was true . . . ” She swallows hard and tries again. She grieves for Belén, for what he has become. “If what he said was true, the animagi want your Godstone. ” She has her usual control now, face hard, voice flat. “We cannot begin to guess what sorcery they’ll bring to bear with a final, living Godstone in their possession. You must flee this place. Give your husband a chance to defend you. ” Her words are strong. They should have passion in them, but she is like iron. Or ice. It occurs to me that she has lost more than I can imagine. I never had parents to lose—my mother died when I was born and my father was always too busy for me—so I can’t begin to understand her pain. Then she lost Belén. Countless friends and relatives. And now her brother.

  Cosmé is right. I know it in a deep place of understanding. Invierne cannot be allowed to possess my Godstone. Neither can they be allowed to discover the amulet I now wear around my neck or the Godstones buried with my potted palm in Brisadulce.

  We leave Cosmé in charge of Basajuan, supported by Jacián and most of Lord Hector’s retainers. She will evacuate as many as she can, then use the conde’s troops to harass Invierne’s northern army from behind as it marches toward the coastal holdings. Carlo will return to the Malficio with news of what has transpired.

  I want a reminder of the life and purpose I created for myself. So Mara agrees to fill the lady-in-waiting position that has been vacant since Aneaxi’s death. Benito also decides to accompany us when Hector promises him a post in the palace guard.

  We leave the next day, early in the morning when dawn’s light is merely grayish. In spite of the hour, everyone comes to the stables to see us off. Walking away from my desert companions feels like cutting off a limb. How does one say good-bye to an arm? One doesn’t, I suppose. One pretends it isn’t happening. I steel myself, make a rock of my heart. My friends seem disappointed that I don’t make more of a fuss. Carlo, in particular, looks at me with such hurt, his eyes liquid and searching. I clasp his hand briefly and turn away.

  Someone grabs me, spins me around. It’s Cosmé. She hugs me then, just long enough to say, “Don’t be so cold, Elisa. Don’t be like me. ”

  I stum
ble back. “But . . . it helps. ”

  She shakes her head. “No. You think it does, but it doesn’t. ”

  I’m skeptical, but I nod.

  Then Hector helps me into my carriage. Ximena and Mara are already inside, still and stoic, hands folded in their laps. Someone barks orders, reigns snap, and we lurch away.

  But thinking of Cosmé’s words, I rip aside the back curtain to wave one last time.

  Armies move slowly, Hector tells me. Still, everyone feels the unspoken urgency. We must reach Brisadulce well before Invierne does.

  We cannot cross the deep desert with horses and carriages, so we skirt it to the north, keeping an even distance from the jungle line of the Hinders to avoid ambush by the Perditos. The carriage pitches and sways at our bruising pace, so I spend a part of each day jogging beside it. It’s hard to believe I ever preferred clunky carriage travel to my own two feet.

  Fortunately, no one tries to coerce me into mounting a horse.

  We don’t even pause to rest when we reach the road that would take us through the Hinders and back to the country of my birth. By the time we pass the place where Aneaxi died of infection, Ximena has thoroughly adopted my new lady-in-waiting into our strange family. I smile to see them laughing together, one gray haired and thickset, the other young and scarred and tall as a palm. Their easy friendship relaxes me. Gradually, through many hair brushings and carriage rides, I tell them both about Humberto. I can’t say a lot at once; the whole picture of him is still too precious. But neither of them press the matter, and slowly his story leaks out of me.

  Nighttime brings horrifying dreams of icy-eyed sorcerers and glowing amulets. Sometimes I’m fleeing from clawed hands that grasp for my navel. Other times, I’m searching for something, searching so desperately because everyone I care about will die if I don’t find it. When I wake, I can’t remember what I was looking for. But I know in those first moments of stirring that there are things I’ve yet to comprehend. I clutch my amulets—the animagus’s caged Godstone and the conde’s ugly golden flower—to remind myself that I’ve been victorious twice.

  I know it is not enough. Something still eludes me.

  In desperation, I close my eyes. “Pray through your doubts,” Father Alentín told me. So I do.

  We push hard, and our caravan makes the trip from Basajuan to Brisadulce in a little over a month. Like before, we pass a line of palms and suddenly a giant wall rises into the sky, a perfect companion to the yellow-orange sand it springs from. It is so like my first view of the city that my throat squeezes closed. How long have I been gone? Five months? More? I’ve lost track.

  Hector calls a halt and rides toward me. I peer up at him, hand shielding my eyes from the desert sun.

  “How would you like to enter the city, Elisa? Announced at the main gates? Or do you want to go in through the merchants’ alley again?”

  His horse, a blood bay, tosses his head and flares his nostrils. I recoil from the creature, saying, “Not the main gate, please. ”

  Lord Hector nods. “The merchants’ alley, then. ”

  He leads us south, along the wall. Up close, I see the changes that have occurred in my absence. Small fortifications extend outside in an even perimeter: dark pits in the sand, hastily constructed walls of brick and clay with arrow slits, mounds of sand covered in tent cloth and hide. High above, figures pace back and forth along the wall’s crest, tiny toy guardsmen with spears and bows.

  Inside, the fortifications are even more apparent. Arrows lie in neat piles along the inner wall, and the first buildings we encounter are silent and still, a barrier of abandoned lifelessness ringing the city. Sadness twinges in my chest when we finally encounter the citizens of Brisadulce. They walk hurriedly, heads down, unsmiling. So different from the vibrant society I left behind.

  I pull Hector aside when we reach Alejandro’s stables. “You’re certain no one is expecting us?” I ask.

  “We did not dare send a message,” he confirms. “Given how the jungle Perditos were able to ambush us on our last journey together. You’re a target now that you are known to be Alejandro’s wife. ”

  I was a target already just by bearing the Godstone, but I don’t bother to correct him. “And Alejandro does not know what has become of me?”

  “He does not. ”

  I am suddenly glad Ximena never received my coded note. Now I will use the surprise to our advantage.

  “Please do not announce us just yet. I would like to make an entrance. ”

  His eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”

  “I want to be announced as—as the Lady of the Malficio. In public. ”

  He considers for a moment. “In that case, I can’t take you to your suite. We’ll have to find another place for you to freshen up. The servants’ quarters, perhaps. ”

  “That would be perfect. ”

  We hide in the carriage with curtains drawn while Hector makes arrangements. In no time, Ximena, Mara, and I are ensconced in a plain whitewashed room with a bunked bed. Mara volunteers to sleep on the floor.

  King Alejandro will not be holding court until tomorrow afternoon. We order food and stay inside, exchanging stories, pacing. It’s a strange time, for I keep wondering about my husband, about how many walls separate us. This castle should feel familiar and homelike. Here, I am a princess again, a future queen. But I feel distant and cold. I miss the open air, the streaked light-and-shadow combination of our village by the butte.

  I miss Humberto.

  The next day, Ximena prepares me expertly. She braids a chunk of hair and wraps it around my head like a circlet. The rest falls in waves past my waist. The day we left Basajuan, she threw away my blood-soaked riding leathers and scouted the storerooms for suitable gowns. Today she pulls them out of a traveling trunk one by one for my approval. The first is soft green linen with sheer panels that flow from the gathered waist. “Too feminine,” I tell her. “I need to look like I could have led the Malficio these last months. ”
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