Home > The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(8)

The Girl of Fire and Thorns (Fire and Thorns #1)(8)
Rae Carson

But something makes me ask, “And Alejandro?”

He finally looks away from the face of King Nicolao to stare at me. “His Majesty is . . . different from his father. But he is also a good man.”

“You are young to have made Royal Guard.”

“I grew up here in the palace, and Alejandro was like an older brother to me. When the position became available, it gave him comfort to assign it to me.”

It’s hard not to fidget under his gaze. Lord Hector is formidable and stern in the space beside me, and so intent that it’s possible he’s trying to communicate something different. He has the look of one with a mighty mind, whose thoughts spin hidden beneath the impassive surface.

Master Geraldo would like Lord Hector.

The guard raises an eyebrow, and I realize I’m grinning. “You remind me of someone,” I explain.

He smiles back. Years of soldiering drop from his face, and I realized he’s even younger than I thought. His teeth are startling; so white beneath his mustache and so rarely displayed. He says, “Someone whose company you enjoy, I hope.”

The words feel strangely out of character for him. “Of course,” I manage.

But I sense him stiffen, and a sudden cushion of awkwardness makes him feel far away.

He gestures toward the portrait next to King Nicolao’s. It’s of a woman with silk-smooth skin and obsidian hair. She wears a cream-colored gown and fingers a matching string of pearls with a delicate, tapered hand. She reminds me of my sister, with the same subtle grace and serene composure that elevates a pretty woman to true beauty.

“That is Queen Rosaura, Alejandro’s first wife and mother to Prince Rosario.”

My heart drops into my stomach and warmth floods my cheeks. I hadn’t truly understood, until this moment, how impossible it would be for Alejandro to love me.

“Highness?” the guard asks. “Do you feel unwell?”

I put my hand to my stomach. “Did you hear that growl?” I give a nervous laugh as Ximena catches my eye. I wish she didn’t know me so well. “Lord Hector, why don’t you show us to the kitchens next?” And I offer him my arm. It’s a trick of Alodia’s I’ve observed hundreds of times, whenever she needs to distract or confound.

He takes my arm and we turn to go, but not before I glimpse a crack in his composure. It’s fleeting, but I’m struck by how the lines around his eyes and mouth settle into sorrow with comfortable familiarity.

The kitchen master is delighted to fill me with honey and coconut scones. By the time we reach the monastery, I’m miserable from stuffing myself and from walking so much.

The monastery attaches gracelessly to the north wing of Alejandro’s palace. One moment we walk beneath wood-beam braces, along sandstone hallways trimmed in the same blue-gold tile as my atrium; the next, we are surrounded by low-ceilinged adobe, curving walls, and clay tile floors. It’s as if we’ve stepped from Joya d’Arena into Papá’s palace hacienda, and I feel a pang of desire for home.

A tiny, aged man draped in undyed wool hobbles toward us, pointed features twitching. Ximena surprises me by asking, “You are Father Nicandro?”

He claps and grins wide. “Lady Ximena! I received word from Father Donatzine to expect you.” He embraces her while Lord Hector and I look on, invisible.

I close my eyes while they chatter, inhaling the poignant scent of roses and prayer candles. I know I will return to this place often, to pray or merely to be silent and alone. The Godstone responds to my thoughts with warm, soft comfort.

Father Nicandro breaks off midsentence. He turns his head to study me. “Donatzine did not tell me,” he whispers. “Ximena, you are guardian to the bearer!”

Lord Hector steps closer, as if to shield me, while wariness clouds Ximena’s eyes. My heart beats faster. The priest sensed the Godstone living within me. And this displeases my nurse.

“Are you certain it was wise to bring her here?” Nicandro asks.

I’m right here! I want to scream. I am not a small child to be discussed over, the way Papá and Alodia always do.

Ximena doesn’t answer him right away. I watch her consider for a moment, eyes narrowed. “We thought it best.” Her voice is soft, meant to not carry. “In Orovalle, the bearer is well known and closely watched. She’ll be safer here, where few people still follow the path of God.”

Safer. Is this why they married me off so quickly? Because the Godstone puts me in danger? I flash back to the painted savage who lay dead in jungle trash for recognizing what I bear in my navel. I glance at Ximena, relieved to note her long, gray, pinless braid.

Of course she probably knows many ways to kill a man.

I hurry forward, placing my body between Ximena and the priest. For once, I’m glad for my girth. “Father Nicandro.” I smile with my mouth, though I cannot force pleasure into my eyes. “I’m Elisa, and I’m very glad to meet you.”

I am not a tall girl, but I tower over him by half a head. He smiles up at me, delighted. “Welcome to the Monastery-at-Brisadulce. Ours is the first, you know. Built only a few years after God carried our ancestors from the dying world in his righteous right hand.”

I nod. “I hear you have the oldest known copy of the Belleza Guerra.”

“Yes, yes. Several centuries old. Sadly, the vellum cannot last much longer.”

I feel Ximena behind me, watching, but I ignore her. “I’d dearly love to compare it to my own copy. There are a few places where I fear the text may have been altered a bit.”

His smile widens, his pointed features twitch with excitement, and I know I’ve found a friend at last. “Please, come by anytime. I take it you are adept in the Lengua Classica?”

“It’s the most beautiful language in the world.”

I could not have chosen a better response, for he claps me on the back and ushers me into a thorough tour of the monastery and its accompanying library of sacred documents. Ximena and Lord Hector follow behind in silence.

Much later, Lord Hector guides us back to our suite. We thank him and bid him good-bye, then I collapse onto my bed. I haven’t walked so much in years.

Ximena draws a bath while I rest. A breeze flutters the curtain of my balcony and rustles the fronds of a large palm. A palm! I sit straight up and look around the room. Two chairs, simple but sturdy, rest beside the strange, locked door. Several potted plants sit against the opposite wall: another palm, a tree with coin-size leaves, a tiny rose bush with soft pink buds. I lie back, smiling, not at all displeased at the prospect of thanking Cosmé.

My nurse calls me into the atrium. I worry for my new friend, Father Nicandro, and I cannot meet her gaze as I undress. She grabs my arm to support me as I step across slippery tiles into the bath. The water is delightful against my sore feet and smells faintly of cloves.

Ximena begins to knead my shoulders after I settle in, but I stop her.

“Ximena?”

“Yes, my sky?”

“Will you . . .” It’s so hard to ask, and the words feel like stones in my throat. “I mean, are you going to kill Father Nicandro?”

She gasps a little, as if catching on a sob. “Oh, Elisa.” I feel her lips press against my hair. They linger there for a long time. “No, I will not.”

I sigh and close my eyes, able to relax at last. “Thank you.”

Chapter 7

CANDLES sputter in the breeze from my open balcony, and the words of the Scriptura Sancta blur on their pages. I am reaching over to snuff the flames when someone knocks on the mysterious door.

Ximena tumbles into my room through the atrium, her hair mussed, her face alert. I shrug in answer to her unasked question. The knock sounds again.

“Come,” I call as my nurse sidles close to my bed.

The door opens silently. Alejandro stands in the doorway, straight and tall and wonderful.

“Hello, Lucero-Elisa. Ximena.”

Ximena relaxes into a graceful curtsy. “Your Majesty.” She straightens and smiles. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to bed.”

The king and I haven’t been alone together since our wedding night.

“How was your first day in Brisadulce?” He leans against the wall; the distance between us is disappointing but safe.

“Fine.” I search for something clever to say. “Your kitchen master makes excellent honey and coconut scones.”

At his raised eyebrow, I consider pulling the covers over my head. Queen Rosaura’s delicate face and slender neck swim before me. I doubt she spent much time in the kitchens.

But his pleased smile holds no contempt; he’s taking the compliment to heart. “I’m just sorry I wasn’t able to show you around myself.”

I’m sorry too. I would have liked the excuse to cling to his arm all day. “Lord Hector was pleasant company.”

“Lord Hector is a good friend,” he says carefully. “He became my page when he was a boy. As he grew older, I took him more and more into my confidence.”

I nod politely, wondering what the point is. I haven’t known Alejandro long, but he does not seem one for idle conversation. To fill the space, I say, “He spoke highly of you.” It’s not the exact truth, but it seems appropriate.

“He speaks highly of you also.”

“Oh?” I hope the dim candlelight hides my blush.

“Indeed. He says you’ve got steel in you, that you are wise beyond your years. He wouldn’t say more, which is odd because, as I’ve said, we’re very close.” It bothers him that Hector would keep something from him. And it bothers me to see how deeply aware of my “years” Alejandro is.

“I have no idea what he means,” I lie. Lord Hector watched me intervene on Father Nicandro’s behalf. I don’t know why the guard chose not to relate the incident to Alejandro, but I don’t mind having this harmless secret together.

Alejandro shrugs and looks away, and I find the gesture so vulnerable, so endearing, that I almost blurt the day’s events. I wish he would sit next to me on the bed. I imagine what it would be like to feel his cheek against mine, my fingers in his hair.

Finally he says, “I need your help, Elisa.”

“My help?”

“Please. I’m leaving tomorrow for Puerto Verde, to visit my mother and retrieve my son. He’s been fostering there the last three years.”

“Oh.” I look down to hide my disappointment. “How long will you be gone?”

“A month.”

A whole month! I’m proud of the evenness in my voice when I say, “And how do you want me to help?”

He grabs one of my new chairs and swings a long leg around to straddle it backward. His arms hug the chair back, and he cocks his head. “Yours is the newest presence in Brisadulce, and a royal one, no less. While I’m gone, some of the others will approach you to take your measure. Maybe to see how useful or important you can be to them.”

I nod along with him. I understand these subtle battles, this understated leveraging for power. I’ve observed it my whole life, my response always one of stunning disinterest. At home, Juana-Alodia is the virtuoso, and Orovalle’s nobleza d’oro dances enthralled by her melody.

“You can help me so much, Elisa,” he continues. “Just by paying attention. Write it down if you must. Write down who seeks you out, what they offer, anything you think may be important. And then, when I return . . .”

He wants a spy in his own household. Perhaps he worries that some in his court are preparing to move against him. Or maybe, like Alodia, he simply uses every available pawn to play the game. They would have been well matched, my husband and my sister.

He takes my silence for hesitation. His gaze is unwavering as he rises from the chair and approaches my bed. “Please, Elisa,” he whispers.

My heart pounds in my throat as he takes my hand. It’s shapeless against his straight, strong fingers. But he leans closer, and I smell the spicy wildness of him.

“This is what we discussed,” he whispers. “That night. When I said I could use a friend.”

Our wedding night. Why can’t he say it? But I nod anyway. I’d agree to anything, with his lips so near mine.

He leans back, the intensity gone, replaced by that easy, boyish grin. Now that he no longer hovers next to me, my mind begins to clear.

“The door you came through. Where does it lead?”

If he is taken aback by the change in subject, he does not show it. “My suite. It attaches to this one, of course.”

Of course. These rooms must have belonged to Queen Rosaura. He has given me that, at least.

“You will bring the prince back with you, then?”

“Oh, yes! He’s a bright boy. Already a skilled horseman. I’d like very much for you to meet him.”

“I’d like that too.” But it’s not true. I feel even less ready to be a mother than a wife.

He turns to go. Once in the doorway that connects our suites, he glances over his shoulder and says, “Lord Hector was right. There’s steel in you.”

The days following Alejandro’s departure pass interminably. Though I’ve agreed to be his eyes and ears, I avoid the dining hall and its maneuvering nobility as often as possible, preferring to take my meals alone with the kitchen master. He’s a kind fellow, thin and flour dusted, and he seems glad for the company.

During the afternoons, I seek out Father Nicandro. Together, we pour over the Belleza Guerra, spotting contextual inaccuracies in my own copy. His study is so like Master Geraldo’s, with its haphazard scrolls and dusty vellum and close-in adobe walls. It smells of candles and age and drying ink, and I have but to close my eyes to imagine myself home in Orovalle, in the one place where I don’t feel useless.

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