Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(14)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(14)
Rae Carson

His behavior is not only maddening, it’s dangerous. Though we wear simple clothes without identifying marks, we cannot risk losing the heir to Joya’s throne to his own scampering abandon. I shudder to consider Alejandro’s reaction should something happen to the boy.

When Hector pulls him, thrashing, from a nearby alley, I make a great show of reluctance at having to cut our outing short. The prince glowers at me, but I remain firm.

When I was younger, I used to yearn for a little brother or sister, someone I could take charge of the way Alodia did me. I told myself I would be a good big sister, not like her at all. But now I wonder if I was as exasperating to her as this young boy is to me.

“I’m thirsty,” Rosario says as I grasp his hand again, determined to hold tight.

“I’m sure we can find some water.”

“I want coconut milk.”

“I don’t believe that is the correct address.”

He expels a frustrated breath. “Could I have some coconut milk? Your Highness?”

I remember what Ximena used to tell me every time I asked for a pastry. “If you behave, I will bring you coconut milk myself. But if you don’t behave, no milk.” I imagine I’ll join him for a cupful. I love the way the kitchen master stirs in a bit of honey and cinnamon and chills it in the cellar.

But Rosario does not behave. He slips my grip twice, and I send a prayer of gratitude for Lord Hector, who nabs the boy each time.

At last we come to the palace via the side entrance, and I place myself on Rosario’s left, a bodily barrier between him and his milk. Sure enough, just as the arched entrance to the kitchens comes into view, Rosario begins to lag behind. Just a little.

He tries to pull away, but I grip tighter.

“Milk!”

“No.”

“Coconut milk!”

I squat down and look him in the eye. He looks so much like Alejandro, with black hair that curls at the nape and brown eyes with red tints like rich mahogany. But where Alejandro has smile lines and lips that always laugh, Rosario is angry and unpredictable as a coiled cobra. It saddens me. He is too young to be so fiercely desperate.

“I promised you there would be no milk if you misbehaved. I always keep my promises.”

He glares at me. I glare back. At my side, I feel the quiet, comforting weight of Lord Hector’s approval.

“Papá doesn’t keep promises.”

“I do.”

Suddenly the prince’s face flows into soft, cherubic lines, and his hand in mine relaxes. But I see the telltale twitchings in those devious pupils, and I relax my grip not at all as we walk the interminable corridor to his suite.

His nurse is there when we arrive, changing the sheets on his bed. She gives me a wary glance when we open the door.

Prince Rosario gazes up at me. “Will you come see me again? Your Highness?”

I raise my brows. “Will you try to behave?”

He nods emphatically.

“Then yes. I think we should have another outing sometime soon.”

He grins. “Promise?”

“I promise.” The entire day was such a struggle. I find it hard to believe he would desire a recurrence. I’m not sure I do.

But his smile is like the sun rising huge and bright over the Sierra Sangre. All of a sudden he lunges forward and wraps his arms around my hips. I pat his head, awkwardly, while Lord Hector’s mustache twitches. When at last he disengages, I feel strangely empty and cold.

I give his nurse strict orders to refuse any requests for coconut milk, but I don’t feel I can trust her. After the door closes, I turn to Lord Hector.

“My lord, would you mind doing me a favor?”

“Ask.”

“Could you stop in the kitchens? The staff should know about the terrible nausea His Highness suffered today. Naturally, all requests for coconut milk should be met with water and mild tea.” Maybe I’m being too hard on the boy. And it feels unfair to forbid him something that I myself learned to find comfort in when I was about his age.

“Of course, Highness. You’ve made a powerful friend today, Highness.”

I’m not sure if he refers to himself or Rosario. “Elisa,” I say, exasperated. “Please call me Elisa. ‘Highness’ is for errant servants and lonely children.”

At last he grins, true and real, and the sorrow lines in his face transform into undeniable proof that the man laughs on occasion. He offers me his very large, very muscled arm and escorts me back to my suite.

Cosmé is using my bed for temporary laundry storage when I arrive. I stand for a moment in the doorway, footsore, watching her. Such deft fingers slide across the fabric in a whipping motion, folds appearing beneath them as if by magic. I recognize one of my curtains, the golden gauze ashine with cleanness, tossed haphazardly across one corner of the bed. Bath towels, all variations on a blue theme, lie neatly stacked nearby. So much work to keep my suite beautiful. I hadn’t even realized the curtain needed washing.

Cosmé hums while she works, a cheery hymn I recognize from last week’s services. It’s strange to see her so unguarded. For the first time, I realize the stoic expression I see every day is not the natural one. I watch her for a long time, trying to understand this other Cosmé, to puzzle out how a maid could feel more warmth for a bath towel than for a princess.

But then, it’s not my goal to be popular with Ariña’s maid.

“Ximena has not yet returned?”

She jumps; a towel flutters to the stone. “I’m sorry, Highness. You startled me.” Her face is blandly beautiful once again.

“I’m sure the towel is uninjured. My nurse?”

“Stopped by to get some supplies, then went to visit Father Nicandro in the monastery.”

I can’t help but smile. “She used to be a scribe.”

Her black eyes open wide. “Lady Ximena?”

I’m wickedly pleased to surprise her, and I want to brag about Ximena. I want to tell this pert girl that my nurse is one of the smartest, most educated people I’ve ever met, that she can kill a man with nothing but a hairpin. Of course, I say nothing.

“I don’t think Ximena expected you back for some time,” she says, needing to fill the silent space.

I sigh and lean against a bedpost. “His Royal Unruliness proved difficult. We’ve returned well before dinnertime, yet I am exhausted.”

Cosmé steps forward in that gliding way of hers. “Since Ximena is gone, I’ll help you change. Then I can draw a bath if you like.”

It takes a split second for my tired, fuzzy head to realize she’s reaching for the thin sash at my waist. I take a panicked, violent step backward, but it is too late. I’ve already felt her clever fingers glance across malleable flesh to obstinate stone.

Though I’ve stepped away, her arm remains raised, and she stares at her fingertips like they are ugly, foreign things that suddenly attached to her wrist by chance. When she finally looks up to meet my gaze, tears stream down her face.

“You!” she whispers. Her lips curl in disgust. “How can it be you?”

The gem flashes hot in my abdomen. Nausea worms beneath it.

Cosmé shakes her head and mutters. “It makes no sense. No sense at all. Maybe it’s a mistake.” She wipes at tears with the backs of her knuckles.

“Cosmé.”

“It can’t be you. It can’t be. The bearer is supposed to be—”

“Cosmé!” She goes silent and studies me: my face, my hands, especially my stomach. I see the exact moment when she remembers herself again. A flicker of horror, followed by her usual veil of calm.

“May I be dismissed?” Her face may be calm, but her voice is still tight.

“No.” I step toward her. “Cosmé, you must tell no one about this.”

“Of course not, Your Highness. A good lady’s maid is always discreet.”

“Yes, I’m sure.” I smile humorlessly. It is, I hope, a decent approximation of the dangerous smile I’ve seen Alodia wear to good advantage. “I shall strive to be clearer. Not too long ago, someone—a seasoned warrior—discovered the stone I carry. Moments later, Ximena killed him with nothing but a hairpin.” I feel the smile turn more dangerous. No longer Alodia’s but fully my own, because I get to brag about my nurse after all.

I don’t dismiss the maid until I’m sure I detect understanding in her eyes.

I do not tell Ximena about the exchange with Cosmé. Though I hold no affection for the maid, I’ve no wish to see her die. Still, she reacted with such passion to discovering the stone. I need to tell someone. Maybe Father Nicandro. I resolve to seek him out tomorrow.

We begin our nightly routine. Ximena brings me a glass of chilled wine and a candle for my dressing table, then unbraids my hair while I sit, reading from the Scriptura Sancta. The lyrical quality of the language, the calming truth in the words, usually lull me into dream-readiness. But not tonight. The swirling script blurs on the page, becoming dark, probing eyes. Alejandro’s eyes. I remember the way he looked at me during council, the way the lines of his face softened as he studied me. Ariña noticed, too.

I close the Scriptura. “Ximena.”

“Yes, my sky?”

“I want to look . . . nice. Tonight.”

I catch a hint of her smile in the mirror. “You think he will visit?”

“Maybe.” I do think he will. But I’m afraid to say it, as if saying it would make it not happen, and then she would know how disappointed I was.

“Well, just in case, then.” Her thumb caresses my jawline.

My hair, free of the braids, falls crimped past my waist. Ximena pulls some of it back from my forehead and fastens it loosely with a pearl comb. It makes my face look longer, thinner, and my eyes are suddenly noticeable. My nurse dabs a bit of carmine on my lips. She picks up the kohl but changes her mind. “No need,” she mutters. I’m not sure I agree.

Ximena helps me into my nightgown. She chooses a fawn-colored silk that warms the brown of my eyes and makes my skin glow. I stand before the mirror for a moment, half in approval, half in despair. I’ll never be dainty or fair or beautiful like Ariña. Even now, stretching as tall as I can, my stomach and br**sts swell against the fabric. But my dark skin is unusual, uniquely me, and my hair shimmers.

This is Lucero-Elisa, I think to myself. Bearer of the Godstone.

Ximena reaches forward and loosens the ties of my neckline a little. Just enough to draw attention. Then I climb into my huge bed, where she arranges the blankets around me, drapes my hair across my shoulders, and hands me the Scriptura so I can pretend to read while I wait for Alejandro to knock.

I wait for a very long time, heart pounding in my throat, feeling foolish. I’m glad Cosmé does not attend me in the evenings, that only Ximena will know I took such pains. After a while, I give up reading and pray instead, and the Godstone sends massaging fingers of warmth in response. I doze.

He knocks.

I jump, confused for a moment. The candle has burned halfway down, and a dollop of wax has cooled on my nightstand. On the second knock, I call for him to enter. As the knob turns, I worry that I might have drool on my cheek, that my gown has fallen too low, but I forget such things as soon as I see his face.

“I hope I’m not too late,” he whispers. “General Luz-Manuel kept me almost all day.”

“No, of course not. I was just—” The Scriptura Sancta lies skewed to the side, one corner floating over the edge of my bed. I giggle. “I guess I fell asleep reading.”

Alejandro settles before me on the bed. He is tall enough to climb up without the stool. “You have always been so devout?”

I shrug. “I’ve been studying the sacred texts since I was a little girl.” All but Homer’s Afflatus, anyway. “Seemed necessary, bearing the Godstone.” Yet it has not been enough. God remains inscrutable to me, and I feel no closer to my divine appointment with heroism than the day he stuck the thing in my navel sixteen years ago.

He reaches forward and grasps my hand. His thumb sweeps gently across my knuckles and my whole arm tingles. It is always so hard to breathe when he is near.

“Elisa.” His voice is lower than usual. “Thank you for your help with Rosario today. It gave me the opportunity to take care of some very important things.” He smiles, his eyelids heavy with exhaustion. “My son adores you.”

Thinking of the little brat helps me find my voice. “I’m not sure about that.”

“He spoke of nothing but you tonight.”

“He did?”

“He did.”

“Well, I like him too.” It’s true, oddly.

“You’ll make a great queen.”

My mouth opens. I stare at him like a dead rock cod.

He just nods, oblivious to my surprise. “I’ll announce our engagement soon.” He leans forward and kisses me on the cheek, lingering a moment. His lips are warm, slightly moist. I wish he would move them lower, toward my lips.

I mutter unintelligible politeness as he takes his leave, then I watch his long legs patter away. The door to Alejandro’s suite closes and the lock clicks before I truly realize what he said.

Engagement.

He doesn’t intend to tell the people of Joya d’Arena that we are already married.

I have been strong three times today, holding my ground with the Quorum, with Rosario, with Cosmé. But with Alejandro, I always dissolve into a pool of weak helplessness. He is a good man, I’m sure of it. And so beautiful as to be dazz-ling. But I don’t like the person I am when I’m around him.

I am sick of being treated like a child. Weary of secrets. Disgusted with myself for letting it all happen. Anger begins to boil inside me, and it makes me feel daring. Daring enough to call out, “Ximena!”

Recommended
» Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades #1) read online
» Swear on This Life read online
» The Submissive (The Submissive Trilogy #1) read online
» See Me read online
» Stay with Me (Wait for You #3) read online
» You Were Mine (Rosemary Beach #9) read online
» Black Arts (Jane Yellowrock #7) read online
» Just One Year (Just One Day #2) read online
» Easy (Contours of the Heart #1) read online
» Pulse (Collide #2) read online
» Rush Too Far (Rosemary Beach #4) read online
» Warcross (Warcross #1) read online
» Filthy English (English #2) read online
» The Bitter Kingdom (Fire and Thorns #3) read online
» The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorn read online
» Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin #1) read online
» Just One Day (Just One Day #1) read online
» Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Chris read online
» Archangel's Heart (Guild Hunter #9) read online
» Gone Girl read online
» The Fever Code (The Maze Runner #5) read online
» The Millionaire's Indecent Proposal read online
» Moonshot read online
» Once in a Lifetime (Lucky Harbor #9) read online
» Kiro's Emily (Rosemary Beach #9.5) read online