Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(5)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(5)
Rae Carson

Alodia is right.

“Ximena.”

“Yes, love?” Her fingers are busy at my back, loosening the stays.

“I’m sorry. So sorry.”

The fingers pause. “Why do you say this, my sky?”

Tears prick at my eyes. “I don’t know who you are or anything about you. I don’t know who Aneaxi is. And it’s my fault.”

For once, my nurse doesn’t brush off my objections with platitudes and weak praise. She just reaches around with her strong arms and hugs me close.

Ximena tells me that she is an orphan. As a little girl, she served priests in the refectory and laundered their robes. One man, Father Donatzine, noticed her quiet, hardworking spirit. He taught her to read and write well enough to scribe among the great historical documents of the Monastery-at-Amalur, where she took a special interest in the Common Man’s Guide to Service. After years of engraving the precious words onto her heart, Father Donatzine recommended her for service to my father, who was a young prince at the time.

“I still visit Father Donatzine when I can,” she says as she hangs my skirt to dry outside the carriage window. “He can’t read anymore. So I read aloud for him. He loves the passages in the Scriptura Sancta about God’s chosen.” She has a lovely smile that makes happy lines around her small eyes. “He was so pleased when God chose you on your naming day. He’d made a special point of living long enough to see the next choosing.”

I don’t remember Father Donatzine. I should be flattered that a man I never knew attached such importance to my existence. But it feels intrusive.

It occurs to me to ask, “Will you miss him?”

Ximena nods. “Very much.”

She pulls herself through the open door of the carriage and sits beside me on the bench. Her hands are sturdy and callused. I try to imagine them making careful brushstrokes on parchment. I’ve felt her rough fingertips against my back my whole life, watched how dexterous and capable they are. Capable of killing with a hairpin.

“You’re looking at me strangely.”

“That day. With the prisoner.”

Her gaze softens. “I thought you might ask.”

“You moved so quickly, Ximena! And you knew exactly where to stick that pin, and you knew he wasn’t attacking me, and I . . .” It’s coming out wrong, like I’m accusing her, which would be ridiculous since she’s not the only one who killed that day.

But she looks at me the same way she always does, with endless patience and perfect love. “My sky, I wish I could tell you many things.” She brushes my cheek with her knuckles.Then the carriage rocks as she descends the steps. “I need to check on Aneaxi.”

Tiny bumps rise on my arms as I watch Ximena navigate the sleeping rolls and pit fires of our small camp. I realize I’m peering from the carriage clad only in my chemise and torn slip.

The next day I ride with Aneaxi, who needs extra space so her splinted leg can lie across the bench. Each time we hit a bump, she winces and sweat coalesces on her forehead. She fans herself while answering all the questions I should have asked long ago.

I learn that my lady-in-waiting is the bastard child of Conde Sirvano, of my father’s court. Too controversial to make a good political match, too important to be shipped off to the monastery that raised Ximena, her status was a fluid thing, subject to the mood of her father. “Growing up in his household was dreadful,” she says. “Whispers as I passed, dark glances. All my clothes were hand-me-downs from my older half-sister. But she would rip them or pour ink on them before giving them to me.”

I am rapt as she remembers it all, because I know what it’s like to have a favored sister, to bear the studied, condemning gaze of the court. All my life, Aneaxi has been the sympathetic one, wrapping me in a hug and saying how sorry she is for everything. Now I understand why.

“I started volunteering in the laundry. Just to get away and to feel useful. One day at court, my father noticed my hands—all cracked and peeling. He beat me.” She shrugs, as if it doesn’t bother her in the least. And it probably doesn’t—not anymore. Aneaxi is never one to stay upset for long.

“But he also decided that if I wanted to work so badly, he would find something appropriate to my station, such as it is. He actually used those words, ‘such as it is.’ So he made me attend his latest wife, who was only a little older than I. He thought it would be a punishment, but we became friends. And when your mamá took pregnant with Alodia, my lady recommended me to Ximena, who was the queen’s attendant at the time.”

I ask, “Do you ever regret coming to the palace to serve my family?”

“Oh, dear, no. I loved your mamá. Alodia too, even though she is exasperatingly independent and stubborn. But you, Elisa. You are the delight of my life.” She grins wickedly. “And besides, the food at the palace is so, so much better. The conde’s cook should have been sent to the bull ring.”

I giggle, remembering the night a year or so ago when we crept together to the kitchens for coconut pudding, right under Ximena’s nose. Aneaxi has always been equal parts empathy, good cheer, and mischief—the perfect foil and partner for my earnest and careful nurse.

She stops fanning herself. Her eyelids are thin, near translucent like fine parchment. She has grown old recently, sometime when I wasn’t watching. I lean over and kiss the wrinkles that cord her forehead.

She smiles, eyes still closed. “You’re a good girl, Elisa. God was right to choose you.”

I swallow. Her love for me has always been a foolish thing, but I’m grateful for it. Maybe God sent her to me for a reason. Maybe he knew I’d need someone who could understand, even if only a little, what my life would be like. Gently I pry the fan from her fingers. As I wave it across her face, she sighs contentedly. I stay with her for a long time.

That night, Alejandro tells me we are only a few days away from my new home.

“Good!” I say. “I smell bad.” Then my face flashes hotter than the desert summer. This miserable journey has made me too flippant.

But he just laughs. “You don’t smell nearly so bad as Lord Hector.” He glances to his right, where the royal guard sits polishing his sword. He looks up at the king’s comment, and his mustache twitches, but his face remains properly stoic.

“How is Lady Aneaxi?” Alejandro asks.

I shrug. “She says the leg feels better, but she is determined to be cheerful, so I’m not sure. She’s weaker than she admits.”

“You love her very much.” His gaze has softened, or maybe it’s the firelight, but I can hardly breathe. He looks at me so intently, like I’m the only thing in the world.

“Elisa?”

“I . . . She is very dear to me.”

“She is lucky to be alive. Hector told me how you and Lady Ximena pulled her from beneath the carriage.”

I look down at the sandy shale that makes up our campsite, even though he’s giving me the kind of tender smile a girl could think about for hours. Later, when I’m alone in my bedroll, I’ll let the memory of this moment warm me to sleep. I will dare to hope that he is growing fond of me, that he is glad we are married.

Right now, I have questions.

“Alejandro. The Perditos. They didn’t always attack travelers.”

He runs fingers through black hair. “No. They didn’t.”

“Why now? Why us?” I clutch my skirt to keep from fidget-ing. He will tell me not to worry, that these matters are not for little girls, the way Papá—

“We think they’ve allied with Invierne.”

It’s a moment before I can speak. “Why do you think this?”

“They have steel weapons now. Arrows made from a soft, light-colored wood we’ve never seen before. Also, a band of lost ones killed three merchants last year with a—a sharp tool used to break ice.”

An ice pick. I’ve never seen ice or snow, though I’ve read about them. But why would Invierne ally with the Perditos? A thought occurs to me. “The highway is the only land route between Joya and Orovalle,” I muse aloud.

He nods slowly, watching me with such interest that I feel I’m being tested. I realize we haven’t met any other travelers on the road. During hurricane season, the highway should be overrun with merchants.

“It was a risky decision. To travel through the Hinders.” I’m careful to keep my tone even, free of reproach.

“Yes, it was risky. But we kept our journey a secret. I don’t know how they knew.”

“Maybe the attack was random?”

He shrugs.

But my mind is stumbling over his words. A secret. “What do you mean? A secret?”

“The good people of Brisadulce don’t expect their king to return for another month or so.”

Their king. A secret.

And their queen? Something about my gaze sobers him.

I take a deep breath. “They don’t expect me at all, do they?”

He shakes his head. “No. They don’t know I’m bringing a wife home with me.”

The road flattens, and our journey grows more comfortable. The air is hotter, but easier on the skin with its steady, quiet breeze. Blurry, brownish blots mar the horizon. Sandstorms, Lord Hector tells me when he catches me gazing at them. During hurricane season, the wind thrusts into the mainland from the ocean, and the resulting sandstorms can flay a man’s skin from his bones. I’m glad we travel west toward the sea, keeping the dunes at a steady distance.

I miss Ximena. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked about the man she killed. Now I feel this thing between us, huge and impenetrable and unspoken. She’s as efficient as ever, helping me dress each morning, plaiting my hair, fluffing out my ruffled skirt each night. But her touch is brusque, her eyes distant and sad. Or maybe I imagine it.

Aneaxi grows weaker. Lord Hector thinks she’s caught some kind of jungle fever, though no one else has fallen ill. Her skin, normally dark like mine, pales to ash gray. When she dozes, her dreams are fevered and strange. Something frightens her. She calls my name often, panicked, and I have to grip her sticky hand and whisper in her ear before she’ll settle. When she wakes, she insists she holds no memory of her dreams, but I’m not sure I believe her.

Two days away from Brisadulce, our carriage begins to smell of rotting meat. I am no physician, and in spite of my royal education, I’m the least studied in the healing arts. Still, I know of no fever that would cause such stench.

I pull Ximena aside when we stop for a quick meal of nuts and dried mango strips.

“This isn’t a jungle fever, Ximena. Or a broken leg. Why does she—”

Ximena looks down at my hand. I realize I’m gripping her arm too tightly, my fingertips deep in her flesh.

I pull my hand away, chagrined, but then I notice the tears pooling in Ximena’s eyes.

“What is it, Ximena? There’s something you haven’t told me.”

My nurse nods and swallows. “Aneaxi was injured more than we thought. She said nothing about it. Nothing at all.” Her voice is a wavery whisper, and fear lodges like a heavy stone in my chest. I’ve never seen Ximena cry.

“More than just a broken leg, you mean.”

“It’s her other leg. There’s a gash. Above her ankle. When we dragged her . . .”

A gash. Just a gash. That can’t be too serious, can it?

Ximena continues to speak, but I hardly hear her for the blood rushing past my ears. Something about an infection, about it being too late to amputate her leg.

I rush back to the carriage. Aneaxi lies sprawled across the bench. She moans with fever, even in her sleep. I reach for her leg, the unbroken one. Hidden beneath her skirt, the linens swaddling her calf are soaked and brownish as if tea stained. As I unwind them, the smell becomes unbearable. Like fish left too long in the sun, but sweeter, like rotting fruit. Aneaxi thrashes as I expose the wound to open air.

I recoil, hand over mouth. Purple and green streak pasty skin. Something black and viscous oozes from the gash; the skin at the edges peels back into a terrible sneer.

We did this, Ximena and I, when we dragged her from the carriage.

There is only one thing I know to do. I plunk onto the bench opposite my lady-in-waiting. The Godstone pulses warm beneath my fingertips as I close my eyes.

I am God’s chosen. Surely he will hear my prayers.

The next morning, Aneaxi awakens from her fever. My heart pounds with hope. Throughout the night, the stone in my navel radiated such comfort that I know God heard me. I’m sure Aneaxi will be healed.

It takes her a moment to focus. She smiles when she realizes I’m beside her.

“Elisa,” she whispers. Her brown eyes hold such serenity.

I stroke her forehead. “You should have told us, Aneaxi. You should have—”

“Listen to me.”

My hand freezes midstroke.

“Elisa, you have a great destiny.” Though soft, her voice rings with something fierce. The carriage rattles, my toes tingle.

She grabs my hand and squeezes. “You must not lose faith, child. No matter what. Do not doubt God or his choosing of you. He knows infinitely more than we can imagine.”

I shake my head. This is not right. She’s never spoken to me this way before. I open my mouth to tell her that she’s going to be all right, that I’ve prayed—

“He loves you so much. As do I. Promise me you’ll trust him.”

I should promise. Anything to put her at ease. But I can’t find the words.

She sighs, and her eyes grow distant. Her voice is so weak when she says, “You’re the light of my life, Elisa. My special . . .” Her grip on my hand releases.

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