Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(12)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(12)
Rae Carson

Alejandro ignores her, just stares out across his buzzing throng of subjects.

Lord Hector is a tall pillar beside me. I feel his soft breath against my ear. “As a princess of Orovalle,” he whispers, “you needn’t kneel when His Highness comes through the doors.”

I smile up at him gratefully.

A hush settles over the swarm, and it seems as though a wave passes through the people as bodies turn toward the towering double doors. Faintly at first, I hear the first chords of Vieira’s “Entrada Triunfal.” The vihuelas crescendo, the doors open.

A group of people enters, backlit and indistinct at this distance, and the multitude drops to one knee en masse. The music intensifies as they approach. A boy leads them. He’s small and sulky and profoundly interested in the tassels that flutter with each step of his pertly red-dyed slippers. I fight the urge to giggle.

He makes his way forward in an approximation of a straight line. A skinny, pinched-faced woman offers encouragement by way of regular nudging. At last, he draws near enough that I can see his face clearly; little Rosario is a model of his father, with the same cinnamon eyes, the same dark, curling hair. But there is a cast to his features, something delicate in his chin and cheekbones that speaks of other blood. I wonder what Alejandro sees when he looks at his son, whether it’s a shadow of himself, or a reminder of the woman he loved and lost.

A movement catches my attention. Next to the empty queen’s throne, Condesa Ariña has risen from her kneeling position. She clasps her hands to her breast and gazes at the boy with such maternal longing that I want to smack her.

Rosario is nearly to the dais when Alejandro reaches out his arms. In a flash, the little boy tumbles up the steps and launches onto the king’s lap. The reception hall echoes with soft amusement as they embrace. Alejandro rises, the boy’s arms hooked firmly about his neck, and intones, “My son, Prince Rosario de Vega, heir to the throne of our great nation.”

As the crowd roars, I try to remember if Papá ever made such a fuss over me, or even Alodia. If so, I was too young to recall. Or maybe fuss is reserved for sons.

Alejandro introduces the boy to the members of the Quorum sharing his dais: General Luz-Manuel, Condesa Ariña, Lord Hector, Conde Eduardo. At last it’s my turn. Alejandro balances the boy on one knee as he twists to face me. “And this is Princess Elisa. She is here on behalf of her father, King Hitzedar of Orovalle.” A simple introduction for a child.

Prince Rosario looks up from his father’s lap. Such a sweet face with gentle lines, wide eyes, and spider-leg lashes. He looks me over, his eyes grow rounder, and he says in a high voice clear as monastery bells, “You’re fat.”

Sharp intakes of breath. Then silence, taut and heavy. Alejandro’s face is frozen, and the hand clutching his son’s tiny shoulder whitens. Surely the entire nobility can hear my heart beating, my every breath. For a brief moment, I consider fleeing, but even in my shocked state, I know things would be worse for me if I did.

So I do the only thing I can.

I laugh. I laugh like it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. The sound is too loud, too forced, but after a moment it doesn’t matter because the dam of silence bursts and the crowd’s relieved laughter joins mine.

The sitting cushions are absent from the dining hall that night, for there is room only for standing. Everyone mills about, pinching bits of the kitchen master’s pollo pibil from blackened banana leaves and drinking sweet late-harvest wine.

Several people approach me, smiling and at ease, to chatter and inquire about my well-being. They’ve never taken an interest before, and I realize a barrier between us is gone, ripped away by the words of a child. I can’t decide whether or not I’m glad for it.

I’m blissfully chewing on shredded chicken, savoring the tang of cumin and garlic across my tongue, when Condesa Ariña sidles next to me, wineglass in hand.

“Highness.” Her voice is as high and clear as Rosario’s.

“Condesa.”

“Are you enjoying yourself?”

Alejandro’s court eddies around us. I want to flee to my suite and bury myself in blankets. “Oh, yes. I’m having a lovely time. Prince Rosario is quite charming.”

“He is.” She lifts the wineglass to pink lips but only pretends to sip. Does she ever eat anything?

“And of course, the pollo pibil is excellent,” I say. “Alejandro chose well. You should have some.” I’m deeply satisfied by the hint of a question in her brow. Maybe she knows nothing about the king’s food preferences. Maybe she doesn’t like hearing me refer to him with such familiarity.

“I had some earlier. It was delicious.” Of course I don’t believe her. “You know,” she continues, and the way she looks at me with those startling honey-gold eyes makes me feel like a mouse in a trap. “What Rosario said. In front of everyone. No one really thinks that about you.”

I stare at her, a little disappointed at her lack of subtlety. I know I’m just a girl, but I expected better from her. I shrug and say, “‘From the mouths of innocents flows truth . . . ’”

She looks at me blankly. “Oh. You’re quoting something. Everyone just adores how devout you are. I’ve considered studying the scriptures more. So much wisdom to be gained. If only I had more time.”

It’s possible that her words are a peace offering, however slight. But her benevolent gaze is too self-aware, her wineglass too full. “I highly recommend it, even for those not suited to the complexity of in-depth scriptural study.”

I see the precise moment she extracts the poorly veiled insult from my words. She curtsies, graceful as always. “Well, enjoy the rest of the evening, Highness.”

As she drifts away in her gossamer gown, a deep voice at my ear says, “Don’t underestimate her, Princess.” Startled, I look up at Lord Hector. His handsome face is very close, and as always, the wheel of thought spins beneath his placid surface. “She is more formidable, more intelligent, than she seems.”

I nod, swallowing the unexpected lump in my throat as he slips away.

I continue to graze while performing the parrying dance of polite conversation. My eyes never stray far from Alejandro’s lanky form. He circulates among his guests with captivating ease. After a while, I can eat no more.

The light shafts slipping through high windows narrow, then disappear. Servants bring torches and sconce them at regular intervals along the sandstone walls. They clear the serving tables of pollo pibil and replace it with platters of iced melon and peeled grapes.

I catch a glimpse of Ximena. She leans against the wall, her face shadowed. She has been close by since the prince’s grand entry, a silent companion. It would be nice to be invisible like she is, and I wonder what she has observed this night.

I follow the focus of her gaze, across the heads of overdressed nobles to where Alejandro stands, his arm linked in Ariña’s. They chat with General Luz-Manuel. The king laughs at something he says; the sound carries over the general din and makes me shiver. Ariña rises on tiptoes and kisses his cheek. He leans into the kiss.

The spicy meat churns in my stomach, telling me I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. Still, the iced melons, golden with honey glaze, are too delightful to resist. Their chilly sweetness bursts across my tongue. I eat another, and another.

I’m not sure how long I stand there, joined to the serving table as if by design. Eventually, I feel Ximena’s gentle hand on my upper arm.

“Let’s go, my sky.”

I don’t resist when she pulls me away, and I stumble after her, so full I can hardly breathe.

I lie awake a long time, unable to relax. Sharp pains shoot across my abdomen and down my legs. The food I’ve eaten burns in my chest. Worse, I can’t stop wondering how many people watched as I consoled myself. I imagine Alejandro shaking his head at the indignity, while Ariña clings to his arm, smirking. I imagine Lord Hector turning away in disappointment.

Hot tears of shame dribble down my cheek and onto my pillow. I miss Aneaxi more than ever. She wouldn’t have cared that I am unfit to be queen, that Alodia was wrong about me. She would have wrapped me in her arms and told me God was right to choose me.

I reach down for the Godstone and press my fingertips against the cool surface. It’s been strangely restful all day. I don’t understand why I’m here, God. Maybe you made a mistake.

It warms to my prayer and vibrates gently. The added sensation in my belly is too much, and I launch from the bed and dash for the atrium. There’s no chance I’ll make it to the garde-robe at the far wall. I clutch the tiled edge of the bathing pool and heave the contents of my stomach over the rim. I retch until my nose and throat burn, until my stomach aches from the spasms.

Breathless, I slide down to the floor and lean my cheek against the blessedly cool tile of the pool. The taste in my mouth is abominable, but I feel too weak to rise. After a while, I realize the pains in my abdomen are gone.

I feel for the Godstone again. Help me, I plead. The stone responds, hot and sharp, but this time, it doesn’t make me queasy. From desperation, I pray like I haven’t prayed in weeks. I tell God about Father Nicandro and the dead Godstones buried next to my palm tree. I tell him about Condesa Ariña, Cosmé, and Lord Hector. I ask him if the Vía-Reformas who kept me in ignorance were misguided and pray for his protection should I encounter the gates of the enemy.

I ask his forgiveness for doubting him. I tell him I want Alejandro to love me.

Ximena shakes me awake some time later. I open my eyes to find my cheek pressed hard against the grout. A stabbing crick in my neck makes it hard to turn my head. Dawn’s light has hit the skylight just so. It streams down in dusty orange around me. Ximena steps back, into the shadows, and I’m alone for a moment, bathed in God’s radiance. I hold up my hands and watch the light play across my fingers. Warmth suffuses my body, flowing into my extremities from the soft buzz in my navel. I wriggle my toes, delighted.

“My sky.” Her voice is soft and filled with wonder. “You should try to get some real sleep. In your bed. You have your first Quorum meeting this afternoon.”

I had forgotten. I clamber to my feet and step reluctantly from my sunbeam, but it begins fading, or spreading, until the atrium is diffused in mere daylight.

The warm glow stays with me, pulsing like blood through my body, long after I sink into bed and drift into easy sleep.

Chapter 11

I prepare carefully for my first meeting with the Five. Still a little queasy from the night before, I send Ximena to fetch a simple meal of bread and fresh fruit. I soak in the now-clean pool while I wait for her, breathing deeply.

Perhaps the Quorum is the enemy referred to in Homer’s Afflatus. But after a night spent praying, smooshed against the tile of my atrium, I feel strangely at peace. I am God’s chosen, I tell myself. The bearer.

When Ximena returns, she helps me dry and dress. She has completed a new blouse to match my skirt. It’s loose fitting and shimmering red with a thick sash of black velvet. Draped over the white, ruffled skirt, it makes me feel taller, maybe even slimmer.

“Thank you, Ximena. It’s beautiful.” She grins at my praise, and my heart tumbles just a bit. It takes so little to make her happy.

“Black boots,” she says, and I nod. I hate the boots, with their heels and pinching stays, but they’ll add half a handspan to my height. I don’t know what garb is appropriate for a Quorum meeting, but it’s right, somehow, for me to wear the traditional dress of Orovalle. General Luz-Manuel said I would be representing my home country, and so I shall.

Ximena braids only the top section of my hair and loops it around my skull, letting the rest dry in soft curls down my back. With gentle fingers, she applies a touch of kohl to the tips of my eyelashes, a dab of carmine to my lips.

“I have some jasmine perfume,” she suggests.

The scent of jasmine reminds me of home, of the creeper that wraps around the trellis in Mamá’s flower garden. It also reminds me of my sister. I remember her last embrace that day in the courtyard, and the way her perfume flowed around us.

“Be smarter than Alodia,” my nurse had warned.

“No, thank you, Ximena. I’d prefer the freesia.”

The meeting chamber is low ceilinged and windowless, and I duck reflexively when I enter. It’s like a treasure house, buried deep in the center of the palace with torchlit walls of river rock and bolted double doors. I feel the pressure of history bearing down on me, centuries of power struggles and hushed meetings, secret assignations and war councils.

We sit on cushions of red velvet that surround a huge oaken table, low to the ground and worn smooth by countless fingers and elbows. Alejandro folds his legs and sits proud at the head. I’m sure it’s no accident that he’s framed by the golden crown seal emblazoned on the tapestry behind him. I’m on his right, the guest of honor. General Luz-Manuel sulks across from me on Alejandro’s left. Next to him, Lord Hector gives me a wink of encouragement.

Condesa Ariña glides in just as everyone else has settled, smiling apology. She is tightly corseted and beautiful, with shining hair and a silk gown of soft green that flutters with each step. It’s hard to look away from the tiny curve of her waist.

Conde Eduardo, a thickset man with black hair trimmed in gray, calls the meeting to order. To my delight, he quotes the Scriptura Sancta. “‘Wherever five are gathered, there am I in their midst.’” Five. The holy number of perfection.

He introduces me formally—a redundant gesture, but it makes me feel welcome—and the meeting of the Quorum of Five begins.

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