Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(6)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(6)
Rae Carson

“Aneaxi?”

But she doesn’t respond. She looks like a doll, her eyes glassy within a sculpture of frozen contentment, lips slightly parted. Gently, I reach forward and close her eyes with my fingertips, hoping it will make her seem merely asleep. But the stillness of sleep is nothing at all like the stillness of death.

Chapter 5

I can’t seem to clear my mind of haze, though I know Lord Hector is being gentle. I can tell by the way his voice deepens, the way the syllables come soft and slow. It’s very kind of him.

“We’ll take her with us into the city,” Ximena says through tears. “She deserves a proper burial.”

Lord Hector inclines his head. “Then I’ll prepare her bod—the lady for travel.”

I glance between them, realizing she responded to him because I could not.

“No.” The word surprises me, but as it lingers in my mouth I understand how right the decision is. They wait for me to explain while I gaze across the desert expanse. It shimmers red-orange in the rising sun. Weeks ago, Aneaxi told me she’d always wanted to see the desert. She said she couldn’t imagine land that rolled like waves, that stretched as far as the sea. “We’ll bury her there. In the sand.”

The guard’s leathers creak as he bows acknowledgment. I lean against Ximena as she strokes my braid.

On the evening of the second day after God ignored my prayers, we reach Brisadulce. I don’t notice the city as we approach, so seamlessly do the sandstone walls embrace the yellow desert floor. We pass through a line of coconut palms and suddenly it’s there, rising three times the height of a man. Lord Hector rides beside my carriage as I crane my neck. He chuckles and tells me the walls were built to keep out sandstorms.

Brisadulce is nothing like the cities of Orovalle. I notice the stench first, like a privy that’s run out of mulch. The streets are crooked and narrow. Merchants’ shops and apartments tumble one upon another, like haphazard piles of children’s blocks. I eye them with distrust. Everything is high and close and dim, and I don’t know how people can live in such a place knowing that boundless sky and open desert lie steps away.

We receive indifferent glances as we pass—a woman beating a rough-woven blanket, two dirty-kneed boys who scamper into an adjoining alley, a tall bearded man selling coconuts—but we are travel worn, our carriages scarred by the battle with the Perditos. Nothing royal or noteworthy. I’m glad because I don’t feel ready to be seen.

The ground slopes upward as we twist deeper into the city. Here the buildings stretch higher with cleaner lines, brighter curtains. Occasionally, twilight flashes against real glass panes. With the change in architecture, I expect my new home to be rich and spectacular.

It’s not. Rising from a hill in the center of the city, Alejandro’s monstrous palace is the ugliest structure I’ve seen. The history of Joya d’Arena shows in its patchwork of sandstone and river rock, of plaster and wood; the collective effort of a millennium of overzealous builders. The earth surrounding the walls is barren and gray, nearly indistinguishable from the stone in the fading light. The place desperately needs brightening. Maybe Alejandro will let me plant bougainvillea.

Torch lamps light our path as we steer around the palace toward the stables. We stop at guard intervals, and I hear voices ahead, though I can’t make out the words. Perhaps Alejandro has identified himself. I imagine how he tells them about me. I’ve brought the most wonderful, beautiful woman home with me for my bride! Then servants scurry away to prepare feasts and flowers and singing for our arrival. I laugh aloud. I’ve had such ridiculous thoughts since my wedding.

I jump when Ximena’s fingers squeeze my knee. It had grown dark enough for me to forget she rides just across from me. But I’m saved having to explain my laughter when Alejandro’s head appears in the carriage window, backlit by torches.

“Elisa!” He grins like a little boy about to show off his favorite toy. “We’re home.”

Home. I manage a shaky smile in return.

“I told my seneschal we are weary from our journey and will do no receiving tonight. Also”—his smile turns apologetic—“I said you are a very special guest who should be given every courtesy. So let me know if anything is not to your liking.”

A special guest. Is that all?

But he grasps my hand as I descend from the carriage. When I look up to thank him, he doesn’t let go, just clasps it tighter and says, “I’ll show you to your suite.”

I nod, swallowing. Ximena steps down behind me.

We’re in a sandy carriage yard, the stables to our left. The darkness blurs details, but I hear nickering horses and smell manure tinged with the sharpness of fresh-cut hay. To our right, the monolith of the palace is heavy in the sky above me. My companions scurry about, unloading carriages and packhorses. I don’t see anyone unfamiliar, which seems odd. Whenever Papá and Alodia return from a journey, the whole staff turns out in greeting.

Nighttime, no servants, a side entrance, a special guest.

For whatever reason, Alejandro has decided to keep me a secret.

It’s hard to keep my hand in Alejandro’s, because I’m not sure he cares. My pulse thumps in my throat, from exertion and maybe disgrace, as we enter the palace and maneuver through corridors and up a flight of stairs. Ximena follows behind. I’ve read the Belleza Guerra innumerable times, so I know I should concentrate on the route, get to know my surroundings. But I can’t think past the humiliation that burns my face.

We stop at a mahogany door carved with vines and flowers. Alejandro opens it, and we step into a breezy chamber lit by beeswax candles. I don’t have time to take in all the details because Alejandro pulls me toward him and takes my other hand.

“I’m going to ask you to keep a secret for me,” he says as Ximena brushes past into the room. He looks the same as he did on our wedding night, his eyes cinnamon brown in the candlelight. “I’m not ready to reveal that I’ve married. It’s something I must save for the proper time.”

He is so intent on me as he pleads for understanding. Still, I say nothing.

“And I think it would be best,” he continues, “if you didn’t tell anyone about the Godstone just yet.”

I suck my cheeks in and take a deep breath, refusing to cry in front of him.

“Elisa?”

As much as I want to help him, to win him over, I’m suddenly desperate to feel like I still belong to myself. So I fix him with my best approximation of Alodia’s glare, the one she uses on lazy cooks and little sisters. “I will trust you, Alejandro. For now. Because my sister told me I should. But that is the only reason. I very much hope you will give me another.”

I am shocked into silence when he wraps his arms around me and pulls me close. “Thank you,” he says into my hair. Then he releases me, grabs my hand, and brings it gently to his lips.

I tremble at the warmth of his kiss, but when he bids me good-night, I am unable to return his smile with one of my own.

He closes the door behind him on the way out. I turn toward the bed, a high, thick thing with diaphanous curtains and a three-tiered stepstool. Ximena has already turned down the covers. She gazes at me with understanding, having missed nothing of my exchange with Alejandro. I can’t help myself anymore. Sobs quake through my chest, my nose runs, and I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.

The Godstone is an icy fist in my stomach, twisting and grinding against my spine. I can’t breath; my lungs are frozen in shock. Alejandro looms above me. He reaches for the stone. “Give it to me!” he shrieks. I scurry backward on the bed like a bug, curl against the headboard. Alejandro advances. He has the eyes of a hunter, sparking red and catlike. The way he moves, the way he smells—there’s an animal inside him, squirming just under his skin. I don’t remember grabbing the dagger, but it’s cold and hard in my hand. I stab and stab at Alejandro until blood streams over my forearm and my palm aches from impact.

I blink. Lady Aneaxi smiles. “Trust,” she says, reaching for the Godstone. Her nails prod the skin of my abdomen; they scrape around the stone. Fiery pain darts through my pelvis, down my legs. She digs deeper and pulls. It feels like my spine is coming out through my navel. The pain is too much to bear. I manage a breath. Quick and shallow, but it’s enough that I can scream. Aneaxi draws back, startled. Her fingertips, swollen and black with infection, drip crimson. She grins. “You must wake up, my Elisa.”

“Elisa! Someone is at the door.”

I open my eyes to a silk canopy of orange and coral, trimmed in glass beads that catch the gentle morning light. Ximena nudges my shoulder as a thump sounds at the door.

“I think you were dreaming, my sky.”

My muscles melt into the silk covers; I unclench my jaw and catch my breath. The bed is yielding and soft. The kind a girl can sink into if she doesn’t want to face the day. But the knocking continues.

I pull the covers up to my chin. Ximena smiles in sympathy as I call out, “Come!”

A girl about my age enters. She is petite and beautiful with elegant cheekbones, graceful and dainty even in her homespun wool. She curtsies low; it looks like a dance step, like she’s about to twirl away. I stare at the shimmering black hair poking from beneath her maid’s cap. Finally I realize she’s awaiting permission to address me.

“Speak.”

She stands and smiles. One of her front teeth folds in slightly. I focus on the flaw as her gaze follows the form of my body beneath the covers, comes to rest on my face. Black eyes flash, like she has learned something valuable. She raises an eyebrow just slightly; then her expression becomes vacant, and she lowers her head.

“I was sent to help you prepare for breakfast.”

My stomach growls, and I imagine fresh baked bread with honey, fig cakes with sweetened coconut milk.

“Your name?” I ask.

“Cosmé.” She has the odd, lilting accent of the desert people.

I flip back the covers and sit up. The floor is a long way down, and I scoot over the edge until my toes touch the sheepskin rug. “Cosmé, my clothes are a disaster from my journey. Could you find a blouse and skirt for me?”

Her brow knits in confusion. “I could find a corset and a dress maybe . . .” Then she gasps. “You’re from Orovalle!”

Dread fills my gut. A corset would make me look like a stuffed pig, and except for my false wedding, I’ve never worn anything so restrictive. Do the women of Joya only wear corsets?

“Yes, I am visiting from Orovalle. You may address me as Lady Elisa.” I catch an approving look from my nurse.

She curtsies again. “I’ll see what I can find, Lady Elisa.” And she glides away as if she were the princess and I a dumpy maid in a sooty dress.

While she is gone, Ximena and I explore the suite a bit. There are three rooms. My bedroom with the huge bed has a dressing table, a tiny balcony overlooking a dry garden, sheepskin rugs, and large, tasseled cushions. The smaller maid’s room has bunked beds and a wardrobe. A cool atrium with a garderobe and bathing pool connects the two. The pool is square shaped and marvelously tiled with tiny, hand-painted designs in blue and yellow. A glowing skylight suffuses the atrium with hazy gold. The entire suite contains not a single chair. I remember Alodia recounting how the people of Joya d’Arena use cushions for sitting.

Another door leads from my bedroom, but it is locked.

The suite is no larger than my chambers at home, but it’s rich with deeper colors, finer fabrics. I love the silk and gauze that canopy my bed and swathe my walls. But I miss the tinkle of fountains, the creeping allamanda that sneaks tendrils of green through my window.

Ximena brushes and plaits my hair as we wait. It’s my favorite time of morning because I love the feel of her fingers against my scalp, the gentle tugging. My hair is shining and black, with waves that fall to my waist. Ximena usually creates two braids, one atop the other, because there is so much of it. Aneaxi used to tell me I had pretty lips and eyes, too. She was wrong, of course; my lips look like fat slugs and my eyes are far too small, overwhelmed as they are by cheeks like pomegranates. But it’s nice to have one lovely thing.

Cosmé returns with an armful of clothing. She spreads everything out on the bed and I can hardly breathe for the beauty of it all. So many colors, so many fabrics and trims. Glass beads sewn into panels, gem-encrusted bodices, the tiniest, most detailed lace. I run my fingers along the skirt of one dress. It’s a soft coral, like my canopy, with a light fringe at the hem. But everything is petite. Made for a dainty person like Cosmé.

“. . . that Queen Rosaura was about your height,” she is saying, “so I thought one of these might fit.”

Of course they won’t fit. They are so obviously too small that I stare at the tiny maid. She has insulted me on purpose, and I don’t know why.

Ximena’s hand rests on my shoulder, and it’s all I can do not to cry. I stare at the tile floor, at a sheepskin rug that curls up on one end. Softly, she whispers in my ear, “I washed your blouse and skirt in the atrium last night. They are nearly dry.”

I almost choke with relief. “Thank you.”

Cosmé guides us downstairs to a vast, loftily ceilinged dining hall. Light streams blue from high stained windows. People are already seated on cushions when we enter, a row of steaming dishes between them, and they look up in mild interest. The men are clean shaven, the women corseted. Everyone wears bright colors, blank expressions. No one speaks. I don’t see my husband anywhere.

A woman stands to greet us, smiling, and I smile back gratefully. She glides forward, golden arms outstretched. Her eyes, shimmering honey brown beneath black lashes, are startling in her tanned face.

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