The girl of fire and tho.., p.39
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.39

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 39

  Author: Rae Carson

  He hesitates until Lord Hector nods. “Every person will be needed on the walls,” the guard points out.

  “True. The gates will stay open, then. ” Alejandro kisses my forehead and takes his leave, accompanied by Lord Hector.

  The General and I regard each other for a moment, and I see the strain of the last months in the sag of his eyes, the gauntness of his cheeks. Besides Hector and Alejandro, he is the only member of the Quorum I’ve encountered since I returned. Conde Eduardo left months ago to defend his holdings from Invierne’s southern army, and Ariña has kept to her quarters.

  “I’m glad you’re here, Your Majesty,” he says, a slight frown creasing his brow.

  My eyes widen. Luz-Manuel has never shown me the least bit of welcome.

  “I may need your help,” he explains. “His Majesty is . . . well, he is not a man to make quick decisions. A lovely trait when it comes to matters of state. But during battle . . . ”

  It’s because the king is afraid. I nod. “I’ll help any way I can. ”

  He rubs at his bald spot. “Thank you. Another voice of encouragement in his ear may be all he needs. ”

  “You should know, General, that Invierne would love to get their hands on the stone I bear. There may come a time when it would be best to make myself scarce. ”

  He nods. “Yes, Hector told me how they believe they can harness its power. ”

  I say nothing.

  He continues, “We’ll protect you as best we can, but if they take Brisadulce, they win the war, with or without your Godstone. ”

  “They’re going to burn their way in. Through the gate. ”

  His face becomes graver. “The refugees spoke of a strange fire. Some even bear the scars. We’ve been hoarding water at the walls, but our gate is strong. Thick. ”

  “General, I’ve seen the devastation caused by this fire and I assure you, the animagi are perfectly capable of burning the gate down. ”

  “The portcullis outside will hold,” he assures me.

  “If the gate bursts into flame, what else might catch fire? The siege towers, certainly. ” We have built several along the wall at steady intervals. Most are used to keep weapons within easy access. “And surely there is woodwork inside the walls themselves? What about the nearby buildings?”

  “How close must they approach to use this . . . fire?”

  “I don’t know. I’m sorry, but I just don’t know. Maybe one of the refugees—”

  “I’ll ask,” he says. “And we’ll station our strongest bowmen here at the gate. Hope for the best. ”

  “Oh, and tell those bowmen to keep themselves hidden. No peeking over the walls. ”

  “Why?”

  “The animagi can freeze a man where he stands. Just by looking at him. ”

  Mara almost flings herself into my arms when I return to my suite. “I asked everyone I saw today, but no one knew. I mean, everyone knew which tiles I was talking about, but no one knew anything about them. ” She’s nearly dancing from excitement.

  Rosario huddles on my bed, grappling with his toes while watching my maid’s exuberance with wary curiosity.

  “I suppose you discovered something?” I ask.

  She grins. “Rosario knew about them. ”

  “Oh?” I turn to the little prince.

  “Father Nicandro told me. ” He scrunches his nose in distaste. “During history lesson. ”

  My breath catches in my chest. This is going to be something important. The thrumming of my Godstone attests. “What exactly did Father Nicandro tell you?”

  “He said a very important person made the tiles. A person no one cares about anymore, but Father Nicandro thinks people might care again soon. ”

  It makes no sense. “That’s it? That’s all he said?”

  Rosario sinks into himself, becoming a tight ball. “I don’t remember,” he says in a small voice.

  I’m frightening him. I take a relaxing breath. “Rosario, this is such a big help. Thank you. ”

  He beams.

  I don’t ask him if he tried to find the Godstones. A quick glimpse at his hands, at the crescent of dirt under each fingernail, tells me all I need to know. I excuse myself to visit the monastery.

  Father Nicandro is delighted to see me. I stifle a grin when he hugs me, for he barely reaches my cheek and is as slight as a child. He ushers me by candlelight into the scribing alcove, and we settle on stools around the table.

  “Majesty, I’m so glad you came. We haven’t had a chance for a proper conversation since you returned. Now tell me . . . ” He leans forward, nose twitching. “Is it true that you were taken to the gates of the enemy?”

  I shrug. “I don’t know, Father. I was in the enemy camp for a short time, but not in the country of Invierne itself. ”

  “Very interesting. And it’s true that—”

  “Father, I’m sorry to be in a hurry, but I need to know about the tiles in my atrium. ”

  “What tiles?”

  “Prince Rosario said you knew about them. Little yellow flowers with blue spots. Actually, they’re quite unattractive—”

  “Oh, yes! I should have realized you’d want to know about them. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Almost every tile with that design was painted by Mistress Jacoma herself. Her father owned a tile factory. Since the time she could walk, she amused herself by painting her father’s tiles. ” At my confused look, he adds, “She bore the Godstone, Your Majesty. ”

  I gasp. I knew this. Somehow, I knew.

  “She died when she was about your age. Barely seventeen. Written accounts reveal that she never completed her service. But she painted over two thousand tiles with that obnoxious yellow flower. Artists copied the pattern for generations. You can find it in every castle and monastery in Joya d’Arena. Sadly, the only people who remember her now are a handful of priests and artists. ”

  “Mistress Jacoma,” I echo in wonder. “A bearer. ”

  The priest leans forward and peers at me with round black eyes. “Remember when I showed you that passage in the Afflatus?”

  “I remember. ”

  “I have a theory about it. You know how it speaks of individual bearers at one point, and then seems to change? How it suddenly refers to all bearers in general?”

  I nod, remembering the hours I spent pouring over Alentín’s copy of the Afflatus, wondering if I would be the one to face the gates of the enemy.

  “Well, I think we’ve been looking at it the wrong way. What if it does refer to each bearer—and to all bearers—at the same time? What if this act of service is something that all bearers throughout time accomplish together?”

  “What are you saying?”

  He shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he says wearily. “I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s just the spark of an idea. I feel like there’s something larger here, and I’m only grasping the edges. ”

  “I will give the idea some thought. Thank you, Father Nicandro. I may have more questions for you. ”

  “Of course. ” He smiles. “I’m glad you’re back safe, my queen. ”

  I refrain from pointing out that I don’t feel safe at all.

  The next morning, Alejandro orders the gates sealed, leaving any remaining refugees without asylum. It’s the right thing to do. Hector’s captain reports dust whorls along the eastern horizon, heralding the coming army. Still, my chest aches for the thousands who didn’t make it inside.

  I spend a good part of the afternoon staring at the tiles in my atrium. There is a message here. I’m sure of it. I study the color and shape of the flowers, trace the edges of curving petals with my fingertips. I feel a kinship with this ancient tile painter. Another girl, like me. Jacoma, what are you trying to tell me? She doesn’t answer, of course, but God whispers warmth into my belly as if I’m talking to Him. I will need more than war
mth from him if we are to win the day.

  I’m still in the atrium when I hear the cry go up. Feet patter by in the hallway; panicked shouting drifts through my open balcony. Then the monastery bells toll a slow, deep warning.

  I leave Rosario in Ximena’s care and rush from my suite. Alejandro is already in the hallway. As soon as he sees me, he grabs my hand and pulls me down the corridor, past the kitchens and into the stables.

  I freeze at the sight of enormous horse heads overhanging their stall doors. “Alejandro,” I squeak. “I don’t ride. ”

  He frowns. “It’s just to the wall and back. ” Already the stable hands are saddling a big dun stallion. “It will take too long to walk,” he insists.

  “I’ll take her. ” I whirl at Lord Hector’s voice. “Your army needs you, sire,” the guard continues. “I’ll escort Her Majesty to the wall. We’ll join you shortly. ”

  Alejandro nods, then swings up onto his horse and trots away.

  The streets are full of people rushing to get a first glance at the enemy. Lord Hector and I weave through buildings, around panicked citizens, and reach one of the many crudely erected bits of scaffolding that now press against the inner wall. Hector hauls me up a set of rickety stairs to the top. Instantly the wind beats at my hair; sand stings my eyes. I sniff the dry desert cleanness and feel a pang of loneliness for my desert rebels.

  Movement draws my gaze downward. A line of cavalry stretches in both directions as far as I can see, the late afternoon sun glinting from mouth pieces and sweating hides, obsidian arrowheads and white face paint.

  White face paint.

  I wonder how they brought so many horses through the desert. Even if they took the long route, hugging the greener line of the Hinders, they must have been hard-pressed to provision the animals for such a long journey. They can’t expect them to survive a long siege in this barren place.

  A group breaks off from the rest and gallops forward. They curve into a circle and ride around and around, brandishing spears, screaming like mountain cats. Even at this distance, the swirling pattern of black and white on their limbs makes me shudder.

  “Hector,” I gasp frantically. The horses didn’t make the trek all the way from Invierne.

  He bends down so I can whisper in his ear.

  “Those aren’t Inviernos,” I tell him. “They’re Perditos. ”

  He nods solemnly. “Yes. We’ve long suspected an alliance between them. ”

  “They’re here to begin starving us out in advance of Invierne’s real army. ”

  “I’m afraid so. ”

  We stand there a long while. Lord Hector’s eyes harden to a dangerous glint, his face a sculpture of resolve. It’s as if he’s in deep meditation of purpose, storing something up within himself. I just pray.

  The Perditos trap us in our own city. Alejandro, Hector, and General Luz-Manuel spend the next days strategizing about food rations and building up a store of water to combat the Inviernos’ fire. While they are occupied, Rosario and I hunt for the Godstones.

  Word reaches me that His Highness suffers an unnatural obsession with dirt. At least once per day someone catches him next to an overturned potted plant and a river of moist soil. I treat each complaint with proper gravity, then shower my little prince with praise as soon as the door is closed. Still, his enthusiasm for the task begins to wane. I almost order a palacewide search. But the memory of Belén’s betrayal holds me back. I still don’t know whom to trust. I cannot allow the wrong person to learn about the missing Godstones.

  The troops my father promised as a condition of my marriage arrive in three great ships. Hector and Captain Lucio guide them in groups through the sewer tunnels that lead from the sea cliffs into the city. I tear through the barracks that day, looking for familiar faces. So many things remind me of Orovalle: the spicy scent of oiled leather, the de Riqueza sunburst embroidered into sashes, the loose-fitting blouse worn by all of Orovalle’s soldiers when not in full battle gear. But I recognize no one. For that matter, no one recognizes me. After a while, I have to admit to myself that I’m looking for Papá, or even Alodia, and I walk away feeling foolish.

  Their arrival is none too precipitous. The very next day, the first wave of Invierne’s massive army materializes against the shimmering desert horizon. The Perditos greet them with feral celebration, screaming and riding in circles, shooting arrows into the sky. I stand beside Hector at the top of the wall to watch their approach. In those first moments, the combined forces of Orovalle and Joya d’Arena fall into awed silence. The enemy are so many, and they are barefoot, colorful, not quite human.

  I too am silent, but for a different reason. I’m remembering my own first view of Invierne’s massive army, the way their campfires lit the dark hills in either direction as far as the eye could see. So I know this first wave is just a fraction of the forces to come.

  Beside me, Hector hammers his fist on the stone. “I wish we knew what they wanted. ”

  “They believe this is God’s will,” I say softly.

  “Acquiring a seaport? Invading another country? Killing innocent people? Which of their actions, exactly, are they going to blame God for?”

  Something about his edged tone pleases me. “They want me, or the stone I bear. ”

  “Yes, but why?”

  “I wish I knew. ”

  He regards me dead on. “They won’t have you, Elisa. Not as long as I’m alive. ” He whirls and walks away, down the wall until he disappears behind a group of bowmen.

  Another message comes via pigeon from Cosmé. My fingers shake as I unroll it, and Mara peers over my shoulder as I read.
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