Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(13)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(13)
Rae Carson

The first topic is construction of Puerto Verde’s shipyard. I force myself to pay attention to the tedious details of acquiring timber and builders, of devising a system to charge merchants and traders for berth.

Alodia would jump right in with cleverly phrased opinions and flattering manipulation, but I am not Alodia. Instead, I listen for the ebb and flow of emotion in their words, mentally cataloguing when certain matters incite passion or indifference. Conde Eduardo has a vested interest in the lumber trade, though he says nothing of his holdings, and General Luz-Manuel would dearly love to leave Brisadulce for a post elsewhere.

At last we segue into matters of war. Conde Eduardo waves a parchment at us, the broken seal a bright splash of red. “We have yet another request from Conde Treviño to send troops into the hill country. He says their situation is tenuous, that thousands of the enemy are pouring from the Sierra Sangre into the foothills.”

Ariña’s face goes blank at his words, her brow smooth as butter.

I’m suddenly very alert, very interested.

Alejandro leans forward, and his elbow almost touches mine. “Any casualties?”

Eduardo shakes his head. “As yet, none. But several sheep have gone missing, and the nearest encampment is a mere day’s journey from the outer villages.”

General Luz-Manuel’s fist cracks the table. “Majesty! We cannot wait for the enemy to strike. Every moment we delay allows Invierne to gain strength.”

A chorus of mutterings. Alejandro stares straight ahead at nothing; Ariña shifts on her cushion and looks down at her lap. This discussion seems to be familiar territory for the Quorum, with painful, predictable results.

Conde Eduardo takes a controlling breath. “We cannot engage,” he says in a clipped voice, “until we know their intent. Would you have us attack blindly?”

“It must be so convenient for you,” Ariña snaps, “to plan my war from your seaside holdings on the other side of the desert.”

“Your war?” Eduardo scoffs.

“My people. My land. My war.” I’m surprised at the steel in her voice. I’m more surprised to find she’s from the hill country across the desert. I’d thought her sea bred, with her light skin and golden eyes.

The general watches me from across the table. “Perhaps our representative from Orovalle has something to say about this.” He smiles at me indulgently, as if to a small child.

The air is suddenly hot, the chamber walls so near. I inhale slowly through my nose, feeling the heaviness of Alejandro’s gaze. Lord Hector nods, almost imperceptibly.

I begin slowly. “In Orovalle, our biggest concern is our complete ignorance of Invierne’s aim.” Affirming nods all around. “Invierne’s ambassador campaigned for port rights in my father’s court for three years, but never disclosed his country’s purpose, other than to make vague mention of trading. Last year, the ambassador left in the dead of night without saying a word. Given the history between our countries, we’ve anticipated war ever since.”

“It was the same here, “ Alejandro says softly. It’s disconcerting to see the fear in his eyes. Looking at him now, I find it unsurprising that he froze in panic during our fight against the jungle Perditos.

My gaze lingers on him as I say, “But why? Why do they need a seaport so desperately? And why were they not forthcoming about the details? The Belleza Guerra devotes lengthy passages to understanding one’s enemy. I think it should be our highest priority.”

“No one is going to contest that,” Ariña says. “But my people don’t have time for us to educate ourselves about the enemy. They need help now.”

She is right, of course.

Tears shimmer in her eyes. “I’m tired of waiting, waiting, waiting for Invierne to strike. Why not take the war to them? Drive them out once and for all.”

But she’s terribly mistaken about that.

Lord Hector gazes at me steadily, measuring me with that enigmatic mind of his. “You disagree, Highness.” A statement, not a question.

I know my next words will ensure Ariña’s everlasting enmity, but I must say them anyway. “I do. I disagree.”

“There!” cries Conde Eduardo. “Even the princess advises caution.”

My eyes narrow before I think to school my expression. “Your pardon, my lord, but I’m quite sure I’ve advised nothing as yet.” Lord Hector’s brief nod encourages me to continue. “I think we should let Invierne come to us.”

“Why?” Alejandro asks. His face is intent, but with interest rather than challenge.

My husband values my counsel. It’s exhilarating. I say, “Our army will not fare as well in the hills. Three hundred fifty years ago, my country routed Invierne in the Battle of Baraxil, in large part because the hot jungle was unfamiliar to the enemy. Why give them the advantage? We should force them to fight in shale and sand and heat, instead of the forested mountains they’re accustomed to.” I warm to the topic, gaining confidence with each word. “If Invierne brings the war to us, they’ll provision their army long distance. That means guarding their backs. Leaving a vulnerable supply train. It makes them weaker. They want a seaport. I say, make them spend the resources to come and get it. The desert nomads will know how to avoid them. We make our stand here, in Brisadulce. We use the time to prepare. We build layers of fortifications extending outward, into the desert. We set traps—”

“And what about my people?” Ariña’s voice is dangerously level.

I regard her steadily, certain of my logic. “Give them the order to evacuate.”

Her body is tighter than a vihuela string. I half expect her to launch at me from across the table. “You expect them to give up their homes. Their livelihoods.”

I nod. “Until that territory is clear, yes.” I turn to Alejandro. “If you allow the hill country to be your war front, you risk all of Joya d’Arena.”

Lord Hector’s warning about Ariña being more formidable than she appears echoes in my mind, but Alejandro looks at me with such gratitude. Hope, even. I realize I’ve said exactly what he wished I would.

“Do you think,” says General Luz-Manuel, “that your father, King Hitzedar, would be willing to lend troops?”

Alejandro stiffens but says nothing.

I’m not sure how to respond. According to Alodia’s letter, Papá has already committed troops as a condition of our marriage, but it is clear the king has not shared this arrangement with even his top general. I search Alejandro’s face for a clue, but find nothing.

“I think it likely,” I say finally. “Invierne is our enemy too. I’d be glad to speak to him on your behalf.”

Alejandro’s brow relaxes. He nods, just slightly, but I don’t know what it means. Well done. Or perhaps, We’ll talk later.

From across the huge table, Ariña glowers. She looks back and forth between the king and me, trying to understand our exchange. After a moment, she settles back on her cushion, eyes narrowed. For some reason, I don’t think the hill villages are forefront in her mind.

The king sends for a map of the city, and the tiny chamber grows thickly hot as we discuss fortifications and provisioning. Alejandro speaks with a marked lack of resolve that aggravates Eduardo and the general. He wants to know how we would establish our perimeter if we let Invierne come. How we would store foodstuff for the city if there were a siege. I wish he would commit to a course of action.

At last, Conde Eduardo stands and stretches. “You’ll have to excuse me, Majesty. Our meeting has gone overlong, and I am expected elsewhere.”

Alejandro looks up from the map. “Of course, Eduardo. Thank you for your counsel today.”

As the conde takes his leave, Lord Hector bends toward the king’s ear. “Majesty. The prince is waiting for you by now.”

Alejandro’s eyes widen. “Oh.” We look at him questioningly and get a jumpy smile in return. “I promised the boy I’d take him into the city today.” He puts his hand to his chin and rubs. “Hector, would you mind taking him for me? Tell him I got detained in a meeting?”

The guard’s face is stony, but he nods and rises from his cushion.

“Lord Hector,” I say, quickly before Ariña can react. “I was planning a trip into the city today, anyway.” It’s not true, of course, but I can’t let the opportunity pass. I force a laugh. “Here more than a month, and I’ve yet to have a proper tour! I’d be happy to take Rosario with me.”

The king brightens. “Thank you, Elisa. I’d appreciate it. Lord Hector will accompany you.” He winks at me; my chest goes hot. “Let’s give Lady Ximena the afternoon off, shall we?”

I nod, unable to speak. Lord Hector heads for the door. As I stagger to my feet to follow, Ariña turns to Alejandro, confusion and hurt on her face, as if she suspects there is something between us.

The king ignores her, bows over the map again, asking General Luz-Manuel where he’d like to station bowmen if Invierne makes it all the way to the city walls. I know, like I know my own name, that Alejandro has not told his mistress about his wife.

Ximena is delighted to have some free time. After assuring herself of my commitment to caution and giving Lord Hector a portentous look, she hurries off to the monastery to immerse herself in decaying documents.

The guard escorts me to Rosario’s suite on the next level. It’s a short walk. Still, I regret my offer when my stiff legs contend with the stairs.

The pinched-face woman opens the door and scowls. “Where’s the king?” She peers into the corridor and looks each way.

“His Majesty will be unable to accompany His Highness on today’s outing,” Lord Hector says. His voice is even lower than usual, his syllables crisp. “Her Highness, the princess Elisa, will be going in his stead.”

She looks me up and down, then calls inside, “Rosario, dear. Time for your outing.”

Moments later, a dark head thrusts around her narrow h*ps into the doorway. Rosario’s brown eyes are huge with hope, but when he sees me, his face melts into disappointment. “Where’s Papá?”

“Your Papá is doing something very important for the kingdom,” I tell him. I know nothing about children, but I soldier on. “I’m going into the city today, and you may come with me.”

He narrows his eyes and his bottom lip sticks out. “Get Papá,” he snaps.

I wait for the woman—I assume she’s his nurse—to correct his behavior. I wouldn’t have been allowed to speak to someone that way, even at six years old. But she just pats his head, waiting for my response.

So I respond as a mistress to a servant; it’s the only way I know how. “Rosario, you will address me as ‘Your Highness.’ You will not command me in anything. Rather, you will ask politely and with deep respect. Is that clear?”

His nurse pulls him close and stares at me in defiance. “He is barely six years old. You can’t expect—”

“You are dismissed.”

Her jaw twitches. She opens her mouth to protest, but Lord Hector’s glare makes her think better of it. After a quick curtsy, she flees.

Rosario stands alone, dwarfed by the wood frame doorway, his brown eyes enormous.

I can’t help but smile. “Do you like coconut pie?”

“Yes,” he whispers. “And coconut milk.”

“Yes, what?”

“Yes . . . Your Highness.”

“Me too. I eat it as often as I can. And I’ve heard the very best coconut pie is right here, in Brisadulce. I’d really like to find some.”

He nods solemnly. “Is that why you’re so fat?”

I’m not sure why his observation doesn’t bother me this time. Maybe it’s the innocent delivery. Or maybe it’s because I finally realize I’m not the only person in this place to suffer the king’s neglect.

I grin at him with genuine cheer. “Yes. That’s definitely part of it.” I reach out my hand. “Want some pie?”

He grasps it, shyly, and I’m surprised at how sweet and warm his fingers feel in mine.

Chapter 12

ALODIA visited Brisadulce once before and returned with descriptions of sparkling buildings and exotic people. As we meander through the merchants’ market south of Alejandro’s palace, I realize her account was much exaggerated. Houses and shops certainly sparkle, for they are mostly of sandstone with a smattering of adobe. But it’s hard to breathe in their tall, constricted shadow. The city was built around a seaside oasis, but we see little of it as we wander outside the palace walls, blocks from the ocean. Still, the people of Brisadulce exude a unique vivacity, in spite of the dry heat and dusty streets. I see it in the coconut seller who cheerfully chucks his wares at the heads of scampering children, in the laundress who accepts five full loads from different patrons and promises to have them back, pressed, the next day. It’s a city of people who aren’t afraid to greet strangers in the street, who laugh at every opportunity.

It’s nearly a perfect afternoon. Hector is again enlightening company, with an admirable grasp of history and detail. I could wander the city with him for hours, in spite of my aching legs.

But little Rosario is a demon child. He flits here and there, interested in everything he notices for the space of a breath. We find coconut pie at a teetering booth of sweets, but even this cannot hold his attention. After a few bites, he tears off after a scrawny creature of dubious canine origin, the remaining pie a forgotten, whitish lump in the sand.

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