The girl of fire and tho.., p.41
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.41

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
Page 41

  Author: Rae Carson

  “Have you come to gloat?” she asks.

  I actually hadn’t considered gloating, so intent am I on finding the Godstones. I smile sweetly. “I came to check up on an old friend. ”

  She giggles, and I finally realize she’s drunk.

  “Actually, I’d like to discuss something with you. Alone. ” I need to get the maid out of the suite so Rosario can start searching.

  Ariña flicks her fingers, and the maid scurries out the door.

  “You don’t mind if the prince uses your garderobe, do you?” I ask. I don’t give her a chance to respond before giving the boy’s hand another gentle squeeze and sending him into the bathing room with a wink.

  Uninvited, I take a seat beside her on the bed. “I have some questions for you about your father. I need to understand why Conde Treviño—”

  Her eyes widen. She stares at my chest, blinking erratically.

  “What is it?”

  “That. How did you get that?” She gestures with her glass, and a bit of golden wine sloshes over the side and across her fingertips. She doesn’t seem to notice.

  I put my hand to my chest and feel the amulets there. “Which one are you—”

  “Roldán’s amulet. It’s my father’s. You should not be wearing it. ”

  “It became mine when your father tried to sell me to the enemy. ”

  “Ah, yes. Because you bear the Godstone. That was very clever of you, by the way, to keep it a secret when you first came here. ”

  “Tell me about the amulet. ”

  She shrugs. It’s hard for her to focus.

  I snap my fingers in front of her nose. “Ariña!”

  She blinks. “Roldán’s amulet. It’s the first piece he ever made. Roldán became a famous master jeweler, and collectors pay very high prices for his early work. That piece”—she sloshes the wineglass toward me again—“is crude but priceless. It’s been in my family for centuries. ”

  I put my hand to the amulet. It’s not easy to grasp, with its rough lines and awkward protrusions, but as soon as my skin brushes cold metal, the Godstone flares bright and warm.

  “This jeweler, Roldán. ” It’s hard to keep the shaking out of my voice. “Was he a bearer?”

  She peers at me in obvious contempt. “Of course. ”

  I feel hot and constricted, like the walls are closing in. No, it’s the history of the Godstone that presses around me with such unwavering insistence. It’s a rich, living thing that surprises me at every turn.

  “All the bearers throughout time,” Father Nicandro said. All the bearers.

  A tiny, filthy hand creeps into mine and tugs. “Can we go now?”

  I look down into Rosario’s excited face. He waggles his eyebrows rather obviously. I hope Ariña is too drunk to notice.

  “We’ll let you get some rest, Condesa. I hope you feel better soon. ”

  I turn to go, Rosario in tow. Ariña says, “Didn’t you have questions for me? Don’t you want a glass of wine?”

  “Maybe later. ” I open the door.

  “He doesn’t want to talk to me either, you know. Since you came back. And now, someone follows me everywhere I—what happened to my palm tree?”

  Just then, the monastery bells begin to toll in deep, steady triplets. It is not time for services. The bells can only mean one thing: Our gate has been breached.

  We slam Ariña’s door behind us and flee down the hall.

  Chapter 33

  WE tumble into my suite. Rosario reaches into his pocket and pulls out the leather bag, brown near to black now, and already dusting the floor below it in fine soil. I clap and hug him and kiss him on the cheek.

  “We’ll take them with us,” I breathe. “Invierne will never have them. ”

  “Now are we going on a journey?” Rosario asks.

  “Yes. ” If Mara doesn’t return soon, we’ll have to leave without her. With the walls breached, we can’t have more than a few minutes.

  “Will Papá go with us?”

  I had forgotten Alejandro! “Remember, your papá may be needed at the wall. ” If anything, the opposite is true, but there’s no need for Rosario to know that.

  The door flies open, and Alejandro bursts in. His eyes are wide, and soot streaks his face. “They burned through the gate,” he whispers. “Only two attacks, and they were able to burn it down. ”

  “Are they on their way here?” I demand.

  He gulps. “In minutes. Elisa, what do we do?” Rosario creeps from behind me to swallow his father’s legs in an embrace.

  “We flee. Mara will be back any moment with supplies. We’ll leave through the sewer tunnels and hope the tide is not too high. ”

  “But the cliffs . . . we’ll have to climb part of the way, and Rosario doesn’t swim well, and—”

  “We can make it. ” I glare at him. “I’m leaving, and I’m taking Joya d’Arena’s heir with me so at least one of you survives. ” My tone is harsher than I intend, but I swallow my twinge of guilt. Cosmé was harsh with me once or twice. It made me stronger.

  It’s like a slap in his face. His eyes clear; he nods once.

  Ximena has been quiet this whole time, steadily stitching at my new skirt as if a normal tomorrow were a foregone conclusion. She looks up from the fabric in her lap. “Someone needs to guard your back as you leave,” she says gently. “Someone needs to stay behind. ”

  Her face is dark and calm and beautiful, and I know what she intends. “No,” I whisper. I shake my head, unable to bear the thought. “No, Ximena. ”

  “I could buy you several minutes’ time. Precious time. I know just what to do. It is the only way. ”

  “I can’t lose you too. ”

  She smiles. “I’ll find you later. ” But she and I both know it’s not true. Ximena could buy us time, but she wouldn’t survive a confrontation with a sorcerer.

  I won’t let it happen. She doesn’t yet understand how determined I’ve become.

  I rush into the atrium, where we have stashed Rosario’s things. He will need sturdy shoes for our journey, a change of clothes, the signet ring he wears on a cord around his neck that will always prove his identity.

  I pass the bathing pool, and the Godstone pulses such heat that I whirl. The tiles with their four-petaled flowers stare back at me.

  My hand flies to Roldán’s amulet. Four rounded protrusions, just like the flowers. I whip the chain over my head and turn it around to stare at it. Is it supposed to be a flower?

  I hear pounding. The squeak of hinges as the door is thrown open. Gasps.

  “This is the correct room?” I can’t see the speaker from my huddled crouch beside the bathing pool, but the voice makes me shiver.

  I creep forward on all fours, peer into the bedroom, then yank my head back.

  My heart pounds with the knowledge that there can be no escape. Three animagi stand just inside the door, their whitish hair gleaming, their Godstone amulets already glowing with recent bloodshed. Condesa Ariña stands with them.

  “This is the room. I swear it,” she says. She has led them right to me. I should have realized she’d betray me at the soonest opportunity. I should have—

  “Where is the one who bears the mark of sorcery?”

  No one answers.

  Another voice bellows, “If you do not tell us who bears the mark of sorcery, you will burn. ”

  The Godstone hammers at my navel with angry heat.

  Heat. It should be cold. Icy cold. I stare at the amulet in my hand, at the tiles next to me. All the bearers . . . Little yellow flowers with blue spots, one blue inky blot on each petal. Bright, gorgeous blue. Godstone blue.

  God, tell me what to do.

  The amulet’s petals are curved. Concave. Godstone sized. The stone in my navel leaps as my mind makes the connection. I grope at the caged stone at my neck, trying to lift the latch and ope
n it, but my fingers fumble.

  “I am the bearer. ” Mara’s voice, from farther away. She must have come up behind them. “I’m the one you seek. ”

  Oh, Mara, no. I whip the amulet over my head. I flick the latch open with a fingernail and upend it; the ancient Godstone tumbles into my palm.

  Angry questions, too muffled to understand. Soft crying. “Né es ella. ” She’s not the one.

  I place the dead Godstone against the ugly amulet, snug into one of the concave petals. Is this what I’m supposed to do, God? Something clicks, the pendant vibrates, and I snatch my fingers back. The Godstone is embedded in the flower amulet now, as if a jeweler soldered it in. My heart pounds with fear and hope. I need the three Rosario has.

  I shove the amulet into my belt sash and rise from my hiding place. I have to catch Rosario’s eye somehow, communicate what I need. If he’s frozen in place, I’ll have to find a way to approach him.

  The Godstone pulses warm encouragement, but my heart races in my throat and my fingers are icy. I step into the bedroom.

  Mara kneels at the feet of an animagus, her head down. His fingers tangle in her hair.

  Their amulets glow. Condesa Ariña lies off to the side. Her legs are unnaturally cricked, and her blood pools on the stone floor. They’re going to use the condesa’s blood to burn answers out of my lady-in-waiting.

  “Wait. ” I step forward. Ximena is closest to the door, frozen in a half step toward Rosario. The little boy looks at me pleadingly. “I’m the one you want. ” My voice is getting stronger. I’m doing the right thing. Even if I can’t get to the Godstones, there’s a chance that if I give myself up, they’ll spare my friends.

  An animagus brushes past Mara. “You bear the mark?”

  “If you mean do I have a stone like that”—I indicate his amulet—“living in my gut, then yes. I bear the mark. ”

  The animagus’s impossible eyes widen. I ignore him, glancing around for Alejandro, wondering if he escaped somehow. But no, that’s his head peeking over the edge of my bed. He’s on the floor beside Ariña, forced to stare, frozen, at her broken body.

  Their amulets brighten as the blood soaks into the stone. Not much time left before they burn us all. “Free my companions, and I’ll let you live,” I say.

  The animagus nearest me smiles. I shudder at the sight of his pointed, brown-stained teeth. “Oh, you are no threat,” he says pleasantly.

  My legs shiver with the desire to run. “I have a living Godstone inside of me. That dead thing around your neck is no match for it. ” It’s a ridiculous bluff. It will fool no one.

  But he hesitates, eyes narrowing.

  “Maybe,” I continue brazenly, “I should take yours. ” I look meaningfully at Rosario.

  Rosario starts, his chin lifting just slightly in my direction. He isn’t frozen after all. He was pretending, the way I did months ago in the animagus’s tent. Precious, clever boy! The Godstones must have protected him.

  But the animagus is not convinced. “You lie,” he snaps. “If you were able to call on the earth fire, you would have done so long ago. ”

  I grasp for a convincing retort. My hands shake. I take a step forward, toward the animagus and Rosario. I hold my head high, my gaze steady. “The champion must not fear,” Homer said in his prophecy.

  “I’ve been waiting,” I say. “Waiting until I could gather more than a single stone. And look! Here you are. Three of you. ” One more step takes me just past Rosario. The animagus before me holds his ground. I hope I block his view of the boy behind me. “Surely you’ve heard what happened to your brother. The one camped with your northern army. ” I slip my right hand behind my back while I speak, curl my wrist so my palm faces upward. “I burned him. I used his own amulet against him and I burned him. ”

  Concern flickers in the animagus’s porcelain features for just a moment. It’s replaced by a feral smile. “I think you love your friends too much, little girl,” he hisses. He turns to the other two. “Burn the tall one. ”

  “No!” I can’t see Mara’s face, but I imagine it. I picture the droopy scar across her eyelid, her lips pressed together in determination.

  Rosario drops the Godstones into my hand.

  The animagi’s amulets are blazing now; I can hardly look at them. The one clutching Mara’s hair hauls her to her feet.

  The champion must not waver.

  I yank the golden flower from my sash and thrust the Godstones into the indentations on the petals. They click into place, fused there by sorcery. Streaming light from the animagus’s amulet plunges into Mara’s torso as I raise my own amulet toward him.

  Please help me. God has never intervened to save the life of a person I care about. Still, I pray, willing the amulet to do something, anything. Just this once.

  Nothing happens. The amulet does not even warm in my hand.

  Mara’s screams rend the air. Something breaks inside me. “Wait! Stop!” I cry. “I’ll give you my Godstone. Just stop. ”

  The animagus thrusts Mara away. She crumples to the ground. Smoke rises from her clothes. Oh, Mara. You’ve already suffered so much.

  As one, the three animagi advance on me, blue eyes on the strange object in my hand, their long fingers twitching like spider legs. Tears stream down my cheeks. I have failed so utterly. Rosario will not escape. The animagi will have their ten Godstones, and more. My hands fall to my sides, my chin drops. Four Godstones should have accomplished something.

  Shouting, heavy bootsteps, the ring of steel. Joya’s soldiers pour through the doorway. The animagi turn from me, startled. I back away quickly, hand still grasping my failed amulet.
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