The girl of fire and tho.., p.37
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.37
 

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
Page 37

  Author: Rae Carson

  She retrieves a velvet gown next, thick with geometric lines and black trim. But the color, a deep desert red, looks like blood in certain light. I tell her the dress will do if we find nothing more suitable.

  Ximena sets aside a riding skirt to reach for the next gown.

  “Wait,” I tell her. “What is that?”

  She holds up the riding skirt. It splits down the center, and the fabric is a dense, black wool broadcloth. It has a matching corset and vest of forest green with black buttons and trim. It’s strong and ambitious. It looks too small.

  “I like it,” Mara says.

  It settles over my hips with surprising grace. Ximena laces the corset, amid dire warnings of what will befall her if she yanks too tight. My nurse then rubs a bit of rouge on my lips and below each cheekbone, smears kohl along my eyelashes. Mara watches the process carefully, fascinated.

  Lord Hector retrieves us and leads us toward the center of the castle. “King Alejandro knows I’ll be introducing the leader of the Malficio,” he tells me. “But he does not know it is you. You realize, of course, that this slight deception could displease him?”

  I smile humorlessly. “I’ll protect you. ” Though whether or not I have any influence with my husband has yet to be determined.

  I turn to my ladies. “When I am introduced, I need you to watch the crowd for their reaction. I want to understand the sentiment here toward the Malficio. Likewise, when everyone figures out who I am, I want to know if that sentiment changes at all. ”

  They nod understanding while Lord Hector reflects darkly.

  We’re there too soon. I look up at the double doors and feel very small. The last time I entered this audience hall, I stood at the receiving end while a child declared my corpulence to the world.

  The doors open to a long walkway hemmed in on both sides by dense humanity. Chandeliers drip heavy from the ceiling above in a perfect line that leads toward the dais and the throne. My husband, King Alejandro de Vega, slumps there in a pose of glorious boredom, shoulders cocked, one long leg sprawled well across the dais floor, his beautiful face barely registering my presence.

  “Your Majesty,” Lord Hector intones. “I present the Lady of the Malficio, who has recently slain an animagus by her own hand. ”

  I glance at him sharply. I hadn’t asked him to say that.

  The members of the court peer at me with unabashed interest. Alejandro straightens a little, his eyes narrow. It’s still hard to breathe while he looks at me so intently. Hector gives my elbow a gentle push. I stumble forward, my ladies right behind me.

  The king’s face becomes clearer as I approach the dais. It’s strangely void, with only a hint of curiosity. I’ve traversed half the length of the hall when I see his expression change. His eyes travel the length of my body from my feet to my head, lingering on my chest. His lips curve into a half smile. The curiosity remains, and it’s more intense, somehow. Inviting. It’s the face of a stranger.

  Heat fills my cheeks. Pleasure sparks inside me, sharp as an arrow. No, it’s not pleasure, it’s power—a kind I’ve never felt before.

  Alejandro stands, smiling. “Welcome, Lady of the Malficio,” he says, his voice formal, eyes appreciative.

  I almost panic then. The pleasure-power feeling flees, replaced by humiliation. It’s obvious my husband doesn’t recognize his own wife. Yet even in this public place, he can’t be bothered to hide his admiration for a woman he finds attractive.

  He used to stare at me so intently, like I was the only thing in the world. Have I changed so much? Or maybe that mesmerizing gaze was just a weapon in his arsenal of appeal. Maybe he never actually saw.

  Anger carries me the remaining distance. He is the one who should feel grimy with shame, not me. I reach the dais steps and drop into a curtsy.

  “Your Majesty,” I intone, my eyes downcast.

  Then, a little voice to Alejandro’s left says, “Elisa? Er, I mean, Your Highness?”

  I look up, startled. A young boy is peering wide-eyed from around someone’s ample skirt. Tousled black hair, cinnamon eyes. It’s Prince Rosario, grinning hugely. “It is you!”

  I reach out my arms just as he topples forward. He clings to my waist as I bend over and kiss the top of his head. I blink back tears, embarrassed at how much his enthusiastic greeting means to me.

  “Oh, my God. ” Alejandro steps toward us. “I didn’t rec—we thought you might be . . . ”

  It’s unforgivable, really. Rosario had no problem recognizing me, in spite of the fact that we spent mere hours together. And Ximena at my back should have been clue enough. But I decide to be kind. “It’s nice to see you again, Alejandro. ”

  “Yes, yes, you too. ” He presses his lips to my forehead, then studies my face. He looks so perplexed that I almost laugh. “What’s this about the Lady of the Malficio?” he asks.

  “We have much to discuss. ”

  He blinks a few times. Then he turns to the crowd and announces, “Court is dismissed for the day. ” He grins—that boyish grin that used to melt my toes—and says in a softer voice, “My wife has returned. ”

  He wraps an arm across my shoulders and pulls me against him, then escorts me from the audience hall while the court mills and murmurs behind us. He seems delighted, now that the initial shock is wearing off.

  I wish I knew how I felt.

  I tell him a little about my time in the desert, our capture by the conde. But being around him is confusing. Though my ladies and I have been cooped up in the servants’ quarters, I plead hunger and exhaustion and take my leave of Alejandro as soon as I can.

  He agrees to give me some time to myself. “We’ll have dinner together tonight,” he insists. “In my rooms. You can finish telling me then. ”

  I murmur some kind of agreement and let him guide me to my old suite. The queen’s suite. While walking along the stone and plaster corridors—Ximena and Mara trailing behind—I realize the castle seems different. Brighter or fresher. I peer into passageways and alcoves, trying to pinpoint the change. We turn a corner, and my hand brushes palm fronds.

  Plants! That’s the difference. They are everywhere. Palms and ferns, mostly, with a smattering of jungle flowers.

  “Why are you suddenly smiling so much?” Alejandro asks.

  “Potted plants!”

  He chuckles. “Yes. It started just after you disappeared. Word got out that you had ordered plants for your suite. Everyone wanted one after that. ”

  We reach the door. Like the first time Alejandro escorted me here, I feel like a guest staying the night.

  He leans down and brushes my lips with his. “Until dinner tonight,” he whispers.

  I swallow as he takes his leave. Ximena and Mara rush into the suite ahead of me.

  “Oh, it’s lovely!” Mara squeals.

  I shut the door. “The Godstones,” I say. “We have to find them. Before we do anything else. ” I scan the room, looking for a young palm.

  “What are you talking about?” Ximena asks.

  “Father Nicandro gave me some Godstones. Old ones. I buried them at the root of a palm tree. ”

  My nurse appears shocked. She’s still unaccustomed to speaking so openly about such matters. But she no longer frightens me, and I ignore her, striding to the balcony to whip the curtain aside. The balcony is empty.

  “There’s a palm in here,” Mara calls from the echoing atrium.

  I rush inside and look where she’s pointing. “That’s not it,” I say. It’s too small, too dense. “My palm was taller. ” I turn back toward the bedroom, but something catches my eye. The tiles around the tub, the tiny yellow flowers painted on them. Odd four-petaled flowers with splotches of blue. My Godstone jumps in response.

  “My sky, that’s the only plant in the suite,” Ximena says. “Are you sure it’s not the one?”

  My heart begins to pound wit
h the gravity of the situation. “Oh, Ximena, they’re not here. The Godstones are missing. ” Someone must have raided my suite to keep up with the new demand for decorative greenery.

  “I’m sure we’ll find them eventually,” Ximena says, her brow knit in perplexity over my panic.

  “You don’t understand. We have to find them now, maybe destroy them, before the army gets here. If the animagi get their hands on them before we do, we will lose the war. ”

  Chapter 30

  HOURS later, I am forced to abandon the search to have dinner with the king.

  Alejandro’s suite is just as I imagined it would be—dimly lit with deep reds and browns, a bed and dressing table of dark, raw wood, the air spicy and warm. I sit cross-legged on a huge fringed cushion, facing him. Platters of steaming food on the rug serve as a comforting barrier between us.

  I start with the pollo pibil—Alejandro’s favorite, I remember—and wash my first bite down with a sip of chilled wine. I study the platters carefully, planning my next selection as if the fate of Joya depends on the wisdom of my decision. It’s better than noticing how he watches me with such unwavering interest.

  His delighted-child grin from earlier is gone, replaced by fatigue and worry. “I spoke with the Quorum today,” he says carefully as I take a hot mushroom stuffed with garlic breading.

  “Oh?”

  “They feel we should hold your coronation as soon as possible. With the war . . . ” His voice trails off, and the light of his eyes turns in on itself. He blinks and starts again as I bite into the mushroom. “With the war coming, they feel it would boost morale to have a newly crowned queen. ”

  “And what do you think?” I say around a mouthful.

  “I agree. ”

  I take my time chewing and swallowing so I can collect my thoughts. “When I first came here, you asked me to keep our marriage secret. Now you seem eager to acknowledge me as your wife and make me your queen. Why?”

  He picks up his wine before answering. “Before, there was too much political advantage to be gained by making everyone believe the queen’s throne was still empty. ” But his eyes are unsteady, and he gulps his wine as if it were a life-giving tonic.

  “And now that everyone knows, they think I should be crowned right away. ”

  “Yes. ”

  “Even Ariña?” The condesa must have had apoplexy when she learned of our marriage. And finally it occurs to me that, though political leveraging may have been a factor, the real reason we kept our marriage a secret was because Alejandro could not bear to face his mistress with the news.

  The hand on his wineglass has turned white, but his voice is steady when he says, “Even Ariña. Especially in light of the fact that it is you who has been leading the mysterious Malficio all this time. It will be a great boon to the people of Joya to know that their queen is not only the bearer, but a legendary hero in her own right. ”

  Hero? It sounds preposterous. “I had some ideas. That’s all. Your people did the rest. ” Then I frown at him. “You must realize, Alejandro, that Condesa Ariña is a traitor. ”

  His eyes narrow. “She won’t be in my bed, if that’s what you’re worried about. ”

  “I’m worried about the minor matter of treason,” I snap at him. This is not going how I imagined. I can’t believe I just spoke to him that way.

  He shrugs, looking vulnerable again. “We can’t be sure—”

  “She knew what her father was doing. She knew he sold out to Invierne. But she said nothing. Think of all those war councils, Alejandro. All those Quorum meetings when she could have told you the truth. ”

  Hesitation flickers across his face. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll have her watched. ”

  I want her imprisoned, out of my—and Cosmé’s—way, should we survive this war. “That would help. Thank you. ”

  “So, the Quorum would like to hold the coronation in two days. ”

  So soon! I remember a time—so long ago, it seems—when I lay on the bed next door, fingertips to my Godstone, praying about whether I should become queen. Now I must play the game, if only to fulfill a promise to a brave group of people who want the freedom to make their own place.

  While the wine swims warm in my blood and feels something like courage, while Alejandro’s softly yearning gaze on me feels something like power, I make my first move. “You were right about one thing,” I say, my tone respectful again. Almost flattering. “The people of the Malficio are heroes. They are the bravest warriors I’ve ever known, and they would give their lives if it gave you victory. ”

  “You are right to be proud of them. ”

  “If we survive this war—” Fear flits across his features at my words. “Then I would take it as a personal favor to see them honored. ”

  “Of course,” he concedes quickly, but his brow is furrowed, his gaze distant.

  “What is it, Alejandro?”

  He sighs. “Can I tell you something in confidence, Elisa?”

  “Of course. ”

  He gulps the rest of his wine and sets his glass down. “I’m afraid of this war. ” His smile is self-deprecating. “My father was killed by an Invierne arrow. Right before my eyes. I still have nightmares about it. And my next true battlefield experience left me bleeding badly. ”

  “The Perditos,” I whisper. Is this why he is always so indecisive? Because he is terrified?

  “Yes, the Perditos. See how unheroic I am? You saved me that day, remember?”

  I hadn’t realized having one’s life saved could be so humiliating. I barely refrain from rolling my eyes at him. “I promise to spare you future embarrassment. Next time, I’ll let you die. ”
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