The girl of fire and tho.., p.9
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       The Girl of Fire and Thorns, p.9

         Part #1 of Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson
 
Page 9

  Author: Rae Carson

  Questions tumble around in my head about the Godstone, about its history, about what Nicandro meant when he called Ximena my “guardian. ” But my nurse is always hovering about, guarding me from myself, and I’m afraid to ask lest she change her mind about sparing the priest. One morning I rise early and creep from our suite to seek him out, but he is not there. When I return, Ximena scolds me for venturing out without protection, and the fear in her eyes, true and fierce, frightens me.

  Cosmé is in constant attendance. Though no one will take Aneaxi’s place, Cosmé is the most efficient maid I’ve ever had. I tell her so, frequently, and it gives me such a twist of pleasure to watch her react to praise from someone she despises. The Scriptura Sancta calls it “the fire of kindness. ”

  She is cleaning out my fireplace one day, her hands and arms black with soot up to her elbows, when I invite her to move her things into Ximena’s room.

  “There is plenty of room,” I assure her. “And I know the servants’ quarters are cramped. ”

  “Thank you, Highness,” she says without looking up. “But I have my mistress’s suite to myself right now. ”

  “You do?” I realize I haven’t seen Condesa Ariña in days, maybe weeks.

  “She went to Puerto Verde with the king, of course. ”

  She says it so flippantly, between shovelfuls, but her words are like fists in my stomach.

  My voice is tight and wavery. “Does she accompany His Majesty often?”

  Cosmé stands, the bucket of soot weighing her shoulder down. A gray-black smear streaks her lovely forehead. “They get away together as often as possible. She accompanies him almost as often as Lord Hector. Would you like a fire tonight, now that it’s all clear?”

  “No, thank you,” I whisper. Who would need a fire in this place? I can hardly breathe for the strangulating heat around my neck.

  That night, after Ximena has gone to sleep, I sneak down to the kitchens. The kitchen master is there, getting a head start on tomorrow’s batch of bread. He says nothing when he sees my unshed tears, just gestures toward a bench near the round oven and hands me a platter of cheeses. A pungent variety with tiny bits of pepper tingles on my tongue. I eat until my belly aches, until I can no longer distinguish the spice of the peppers. I wash it all down with two glasses of wine and lurch back to my suite.

  The next day, General Luz-Manuel, a man I’ve only seen from across a cluster of food platters, calls on me. My head aches from lack of sleep, so I feel justified turning him away with apologies, pleading illness. I know I’ve failed Alejandro by denying a member of his household. Married to him less than a month, and already I’ve failed. But it’s hard to care.

  My husband has a mistress. I know it with certainty. “Mistress” has always felt like such a naughty word, but not a serious one. I am a naive child, so out of my depth.

  I lie in bed all day. Condesa Ariña’s face flutters in the canopy above me—the coral of her gently flushed cheeks, the softness of her skin. She has a part of my husband that I don’t even begin to understand. I try not to think of them together, but I can’t help it. Then, without meaning to, I start imagining his warm hands on my bare skin. It’s exciting and terrifying, and part of me is glad that I may never know. I’m not sure I could bear to be naked before him.

  Late in the afternoon, a pageboy brings a message from the dovecote. Ximena grabs it and sends him away before he can ask questions. She breaks the canister’s seal and hands it to me. I recognize Alodia’s hurried script.

  Dearest Elisa,

  My condolences regarding Aneaxi.

  Your status in Joya d’Arena was not part of our negotiation. He agreed to marry you in the sight of Orovalle’s nobility and take you safely to his country. In return, Papá will commit troops for the upcoming war with Invierne.

  Elisa, little sister, if you wish to be Joya’s queen in spirit as well as name, you can make it happen, but you must make your own decisions regarding your place there. I cannot counsel you.

  I do believe you have it in you to be a great queen.

  Papá sends his love.

  Alodia

  I read the letter over and over, imagining my sister’s exasperated face. When we were children together, she would huff away, rolling her eyes. The Lucero-Elisa of a month ago would have seen this letter as but a grown-up version of that same contempt, that same frustration at my inability to meet hers and Papá’s expectations. But I feel the truth of it now. Alodia thinks I could play the game if I chose to, and play it well.

  She thinks I could be a great queen.

  It’s heady stuff. I begin to wonder, hesitantly, if she is right. I’ve never wished to rule. Ruling is tedious and exhausting, but better, perhaps, than being useless. And it might be the only way to make Alejandro mine in some way, to matter to him. I toy with the idea for hours, asking what Alodia would do in my place, remembering applicable passages in the Belleza Guerra.

  I make a mental list of my advantages. Alejandro is housing me in the queen’s suite. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s significant enough that his mistress sent her maid to spy on me the day after I arrived. I have Ximena, a woman I don’t begin to understand, but whose loyalty to me is unquestioned. I’ve made a friend in the head priest of the Monastery-at-Brisadulce. I am a princess of Orovalle and therefore outrank everyone save Alejandro and his young son.

  But the hugest advantage of all is that I bear the Godstone. A tremendous honor, I’ve always been told, bestowed by God only once every hundred years, a sign that I am destined for greatness.

  But I’ve had several perplexing hints that I don’t know much about it at all: Alodia’s warning that I should trust no one. The execution of a man who recognized my Godstone. The way Father Nicandro reverently referred to my nurse as my guardian. And now Alodia’s letter, which says I was to be taken safely away.

  The Belleza Guerra says to beware of power, for it is the sparking stone of fear. What is it about my Godstone that sparks so much fear?

  I place my fingertips against the smooth surface. Even through my nightgown, it pulses soft and warm. If I decide to play this terrifying game, my first move must be to discover what it truly means to be the bearer. And I will have to sneak around Ximena to do it.

  I close my eyes and pray. Did you place your stone inside me to help me become queen? I can’t decide how I want God to answer.

  A warm hand presses against my forehead, and I open my eyes. Ximena looks down at me with an affectionate smile. “You look better,” she says. “More color to your cheeks. ”

  I smile back. “I feel much better. ”

  “Are you ready to eat more? I could get some pastries for you, some chilled juice?”

  “No, thank you. ” My mind whirls with planning, for I may have thought up a way to speak with Father Nicandro in secret. “I’m not hungry. ”

  Chapter 8

  THE Scriptura Sancta says that all men are equal in the sight of God, and once every week servants sit shoulder to shoulder with merchants and nobles. The first time Ximena and I attended weekly services at the Monastery-at-Brisadulce, we sat on our rough bench surrounded by the merest handful of strangers. Each week the crowd grew, and today, every seat on every bench is taken, and the air is hot with bodies.

  I suspect I am the cause of their renewed devotion. Everyone wishes a glimpse of this reclusive princess of puzzling status, this large, foreign-clad girl who frequents the sacred library and prays with such piety. I’m glad for the throng. So many people will make it easier to slip my note to Father Nicandro, right under Ximena’s guardian gaze.

  I bow my head as the priests, led by Father Nicandro, guide us through the “Glorifica. ” Translated into the Lengua Plebeya, it lacks the lyrical beauty of the original language. Still, the words burn my heart with their richness, and the Godstone responds to our chanting with joyous warmth.

 
My soul glorifies God; let it rejoice in my Savior

  For he has been mindful of his humble servant

  Blessed am I among generations

  For he lifted me from the dying world

  Yea, with his righteous right hand he lifted me

  He has redeemed his people, given them new life abundant

  My soul glorifies God; let it rejoice in my Savior.

  The altar blazes with a spread of prayer candles. Behind it, Father Nicandro lifts a single rose toward the ceiling. It’s the holy variety—I can see the thorns even at this distance—chosen and consecrated because of its bloodred sheen and sharp spikes. He intones about this perfect symbol of the beauty and pain of faith, and we echo our response.

  After a hymn of deliverance, Father Nicandro asks those who wish to be blessed to make their way forward with quiet decorum. It was for this reason I chose a seat on the edge of the bench. The ruffles of my skirt trail into the aisle, and I tug them closer to clear the way.

  A scattered handful of people rise and begin edging center and front, toward the altar. My head is bowed, but my eyes are open, and I sense someone approach from behind in the aisle. My timing must be perfect. A quick glance over my shoulder reveals a tall, middle-aged woman in a gray maid’s frock. I wait until she is nearly to the edge of my bench.

  I launch to my feet and step out in front of her. I hear a gasp as her knees impact, just slightly, the backs of my thighs. I turn my head and smile apologetically; her return grin is shy but genuine.

  Ximena rises to follow, but it is too late. At least one person will stand between us, and my nurse will not be able to see what transpires as I ask my blessing.

  One by one, each petitioner whispers to Father Nicandro. He prays, then pricks a fingertip with a rose’s thorn. Together, they hold the bleeding finger above the altar until the stone receives a single drop of sacrifice. Father Nicandro makes the cupping sign of the righteous right hand beneath the supplicant’s chin, then passes him or her off to another priest, who awaits with a cleansing cloth and water with witch hazel.

  When the young boy in line before me begins whispering to the priest, I reach, so slowly, beneath the waistband of my skirt for the message I prepared. The success of my plan depends on the priest, on his willingness to receive my message during a holy sacrament, on his ability to seem unfazed.

  Perhaps I’ve made a mistake. Father Nicandro will be angry with me. What if he interrupts the ceremony? What if Ximena sees? His life could be forfeit after all.

  I change my mind. My hand reaches for my waistband again, to shove the message away, but I am not quick enough. The boy has stepped aside to cleanse his finger and Father Nicandro’s gaze has lowered, briefly, to the tiny roll of parchment pinched between my thumb and forefinger.

  I step forward to take the boy’s place, holding the roll tight against my breast. Father Nicandro’s left hand cups the back of my neck and pulls my head downward until we are forehead to forehead.

  “Your Highness,” he whispers. “What do you seek from God today?” With his other hand, the one that holds the rose, he reaches out and grasps the parchment between his middle and index fingers. With one quick, smooth motion, my message disappears into his voluminous sleeve, as if he is well practiced at intrigue.

  He waits calmly for my answer. I give him the truth. “Wisdom,” I whisper back. “I need so much more than I have. ”

  I sense approval in his voice when he intones the blessing. The prick is fast and deep; I suspect the priest is nonplussed after all, for it is deeper than usual. It throbs as we hold it over the altar, the ensuing drop welling fat. It sizzles and browns when it lands on the hot stone. A smaller drop follows immediately.

  Nicandro jerks my hand away and gives me an apologetic smile. I smile back, happy to leave this place with nothing worse than a too-deep thorn prick.

  I retreat to the corner to have my finger bathed and bandaged, and the tall maid takes my place. My heart pounds with what I’ve just done. I pray Ximena did not see our exchange, and that Father Nicandro reads the note soon. Meet me tonight, it says. At the first morning hour, next to the ancient texts.

  After services, I plead exhaustion and take a nap. I will need the extra sleep to stay quietly awake well after Ximena retires to her room. Like me, she reads from the Scriptura Sancta every night, and it could be hours before she blows out her candles to sleep.

  I’m awakened from my nap by a knock at the door. Ximena sets down her sewing—she has been constructing looser- fitting skirts and blouses for me from the material at hand—and moves to the door.

  She opens it a crack, but the male voice on the other side is muffled. “She’s resting,” Ximena says.

  “Who is it?” I whisper from the bed.

  “One moment,” she says to the visitor, then turns to me. “It’s General Luz-Manuel. Again. ”

  I mouth the words, “I can’t turn him away twice. ” I’m glad Cosmé has the day off and won’t be here to spy on me as I receive the general. I tumble from my bed as Ximena tosses me a dressing robe. I whisk it around my shoulders and tie it at my neck.

  Ximena rolls her eyes conspiratorially, then opens the door. “Please come in, General. ”

  He rushes in, as if afraid I’ll change my mind. He’s thin and stooped, balding at the top, and he wears the same sculpted mustache as Lord Hector and the rest of the Royal Guard.

  Thinking of Lord Hector makes me smile. I’ll be glad to see him again, one of the few who have been truly kind to me since I came here.

  “Highness. ” He bows low.

  “General Luz-Manuel. I apologize for not being more prepared for visitors. ”

  He waves off my apology. “Do you often feel poorly, Highness?” His eyes are so full with concern.

  “I’m always tired after services,” I respond evenly. “Don’t you find the sacrament of pain emotionally exhausting?”
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