Home > The Crown of Embers (Fire and Thorns #2)

The Crown of Embers (Fire and Thorns #2)
Rae Carson

Chapter 1

MY entourage of guards struggles to keep pace as I fly down the corridors of my palace. Servants in starched frocks and shined shoes line the way, bowing like dominoes as I pass. From far away comes a low thrum, filtering even through walls of stone and mortar, steady as falling water, hollow as distant thunder. It’s the crowd outside, chanting my name.

I barrel around a corner and collide with a gleaming breastplate. Firm hands grasp my shoulders, saving me from tumbling backward. My crown is not so lucky. The monstrous thing clatters to the ground, yanking strands of hair painfully with it.

He releases my shoulders and rubs at red spot on his neck. “That crown of yours is a mighty weapon,” says Lord-Commander Hector of the Royal Guard.

“Sorry,” I say, blinking up at him. He and the other guards shaved their mustaches to mark our recent victory, and I’ve yet to adjust to this new, younger-looking Hector.

Ximena, my gray-haired nurse, bends to retrieve the crown and brushes it off. It’s thick with gold and inlaid with a single cabochon ruby. No dainty queen’s diadem for me. By tradition, I wear the crown of a fully empowered monarch.

“I expected you an hour ago,” he says as I take his offered arm. We travel the corridor at a bruising pace.

“General Luz-Manuel kept me. He wanted to change the parade route again.”

He stops cold, and I nearly trip. “Again?”

“He wants to avoid the bottleneck where the Avenida de la Serpiente crosses the merchant’s alley. He says a stranger in the crowd could spear me too easily.”

Ximena takes advantage of our stillness to reposition the crown on my head. I grimace as she shoves hairpins through the velvet loops to hold it in place.

Hector is shaking his head. “But the rooftops are low in that area. You’ll be safer from arrows, which is the greater danger.”

“Exactly what I said. He was . . . displeased.” I tug on his arm to keep us moving.

“He should know better.”

“I may have told him as much.”

“I’m sure he appreciated that,” he says dryly.

“I’ve no idea what advantage he thought to gain by it,” I say. “Whatever it was, I was not going to give it to him.”

Hector glances around at the people lining the corridors, then adds in a lowered voice, “Elisa, as your personal defender, I must beg you one last time to reconsider. The whole world knows you bear the Godstone.”

I sigh against the truth of his words. Yes, I’m now the target of religious fanatics, Invierne spies, even black market gem traders. But my birthday parade is the one day each year when everyone—from laundress to stable boy to weather-worn sailor—can glimpse their ruling monarch. It’s a national holiday, one they’ve been looking forward to for months. I won’t deny them the opportunity.

And I refuse to be governed by fear. The life stretching before me is that of a queen. It’s a life I chose. Fought for, even. I cannot—will not—squander it on dread.

“Hector, I won’t hide in the sand like a frightened jerboa.”

“Sometimes,” Ximena cuts in, with her soft but deliberate voice, “protecting Elisa means protecting her interests. Elisa must show herself publicly. These early months are important as she consolidates her power. We’ll keep her safe, you and I. And God. She has a great destiny. . . .”

I turn a deaf ear to her words. So much has happened in the last year, but I feel no closer to my appointment with destiny than I did when God first lodged his stone in my navel seventeen years ago. It still pulses with power, warms in response to my prayers, reminds me that I have not done enough, that God has plans for me yet.

And I am sick to death of hearing about it.

“I understand, my lady,” Hector is saying. “But it would be safer—”

“Hector!” I snap. “I’ve made up my mind.”

He stiffens. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

Shame tightens my throat. Why did I snap at Hector? Ximena is the one I’m frustrated with.

Moments later we reach the carriage house, which reeks of steaming manure and moldy straw on this especially hot day. My open carriage awaits, a marvel of polished mahogany and swirling bronze scrollwork. Banners of royal blue stream from the posts. The door panels display my royal crest—a ruby crown resting on a bed of sacrament roses.

Fernando, my best archer, stands on the rear platform, bow slung over his shoulder. He bows from the waist, his face grave. Four horses flick their tails and dance in their jeweled traces. I eye them warily while Hector helps me up.

Then he offers a hand to Ximena, and in spite of their recent disagreement, a look of fierce understanding passes between them. They are a formidable team, my guard and my guardian. Sometimes it’s as though they plot my safety behind my back.

Hector gives the order, my driver whips the reins, and the carriage lurches forward. My Royal Guard, in its gleaming ceremonial armor, falls in around us. They march a deep one-two-one-two as we leave the shade of the carriage house for desert sunshine.

The moment we turn onto the Colonnade, the air erupts with cheering.

Thousands line the way, packed shoulder to shoulder, waving their hands, flags, tattered linens. Children sit on shoulders, tossing birdseed and rose petals into the air. A banner stretches the length of six people and reads, HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO HER MAJESTY QUEEN LUCERO-ELISA!

“Oh,” I breathe.

Ximena grasps my hand and squeezes. “You’re a war hero, remember?”

But I’m also a foreigner queen, ruling by an accident of marriage and war. Warmth and pride blossom in my chest, to see my people accepting me with their whole hearts.

Then Ximena’s face sobers, and she leans over and whispers, “Remember this moment and treasure it, my sky. No sovereign remains popular forever.”

I nod from respectful habit, but I can’t keep the frown from creeping onto my face. My people are giving me a gift, and she takes it away so soon.

The steep Colonnade is lined on either side by decadent three-story townhomes. Their sculpted sandstone cornices sparkle in the sun, and silk standards swing from flat garden rooftops. But as we descend from the height of the city, cheered all the way, the townhomes gradually become less stately, until finally we reach the city’s outer circle, where only a few humble buildings rise from the war rubble.

I ignore the destruction as long as I can, gazing instead at the city’s great wall. It rises the height of several men, protecting us from the swirling desert beyond. I crane my neck and glimpse the soldiers posted between the wall’s crenellations, bows held at the ready.

The main gate stands open for daytime commerce. Framed by the barbed portcullis is our cobbled highway. Beyond it are the sweeping dunes of my beautiful desert, wind smoothed and deceptively soft in the yellow light of midday. My gaze lingers too long on the sand as we turn onto the Avenida de la Serpiente.

When I can avoid it no longer, I finally take in the view that twists my heart. For Brisadulce’s outer circle is a scar on the face of the world, blackened and crumbled and reeking of wet char. This is where the Invierne army broke through our gate, where their sorcerous animagi burned everything in sight with the blue-hot fire of their Godstone amulets.

A ceiling beam catches my eye, toppled across a pile of adobe rubble. At one end the wood grain shows pristine, but it blackens along its length, shrinking and shriveling until it ends in a ragged stump glowing red with embers. A wisp of smoke curls into the air.

The outer ring is rife with these glowing reminders of the war we won at such a cost. Months later, we still cannot wholly quench their fire. Father Nicandro, my head priest, says that since magic caused these fires, only magic can cool them. Either magic or time.

My city may burn for a hundred years.

So I smile and wave. I do it with ferocity, like my life depends on it, as if a whole glorious future lies before us and these sorcerous embers are not worth a passing irritation.

The crowd loves me for it. They scream and cheer, and it is like magic, a good magic, how after a while they win me over to hope, and my smile becomes genuine.

The street narrows, and the crowd presses in as we push forward. Hector’s hand goes to his scabbard as he inches nearer to the carriage. I tell myself that I don’t mind their proximity, that I love their smiling faces, their unrestrained energy.

But as we approach the massive amphitheater with its stone columns, I sense a subtle shift, a dampening of spirits—as if everyone has become distracted. The guards scan the crowd with suspicion.

“Something isn’t right,” Ximena whispers.

I glance at her with alarm. From long habit, my fingertips find the Godstone, seeking a clue; it heats up around friends and becomes ice when my life is in peril. Do I imagine that it is cooler than usual?

The theater is shaped like a giant horseshoe, its massive ends running perpendicular to the avenida. As we near it, movement draws my gaze upward. High above the crowd stands a man in a white wind-whipped robe.

My Godstone freezes—unhelpfully—and ice shoots through my limbs as I note his hair: lightest yellow, almost white, streaming to his waist. Sunlight catches on something embedded in the top of his wooden staff. Oh, God.

I’m too shocked to cry out, and by the time Hector notices the white figure, it’s too late: My carriage is within range. The crowd is eerily silent, as if all the air has gotten sucked away, for everyone has heard descriptions of the animagi, Invierne’s sorcerers.

The top of the animagus’ staff begins to glow Godstone blue.

My terror is like the thick muck of a dream as I struggle to find my voice. “Fernando!” I yell. “Shoot him! Shoot to kill!”

An arrow whizzes toward the animagus in blurred relief against the crystal sky.

The animagus whips his staff toward it. A stream of blue-hot fire erupts from the tip, collides with the arrow, explodes it into a shower of splinters and sparks.

People scream. Hector gestures at the guards, barking orders. Half tighten formation around me; the rest sprint away to flank the sorcerer. But the crowd is panicked and thrashing, and my guards are trapped in a mill of bodies.

“Archers!” Hector yells. “Fire!”

Hundreds of arrows let fly in a giant whoosh.

The animagus spins in a circle, staff outstretched. The air around him bends to his will, and I catch the barest glimpse of a barrier forming—like glass, like a wavering desert mirage—before Ximena leaps across the bench and covers me with her own body.

“To the queen!” comes Hector’s voice. “We must retreat!” But the carriage doesn’t budge, for the milling crowd has hemmed us in.

“Queen Lucero-Elisa,” comes a sibilant voice, magnified by the peculiar nature of the amphitheater. “Bearer of the only living Godstone, you belong to us, to us, to us.”

He’s coming down the stairway. I know he is. He’s coming for me. He’ll blaze a path through my people and—

“You think you’ve beaten us back, but we are as numerous as the desert sands. Next time we’ll come at you like ghosts in a dream. And you will know the gate of your enemy!”

In the corner of my eye I catch the gleam of Hector’s sword as he raises it high, and my stomach thuds with the realization that he’ll cut through our own people if that’s what it takes to whisk me away.

“Ximena!” I gasp. “Get off. Hector . . . he’ll do anything. We can’t let him—”

She understands instantly. “Stay down,” she orders as she launches against the door and tumbles into the street.

Heart pounding, I peek over the edge of the carriage. The animagus stares at me hungrily as he descends the great stair, like I am a juicy mouse caught in his trap. My Godstone’s icy warning is relentless.

He could have killed me by now if he wanted to; we’ve no way to stop his fire. So why doesn’t he? Eyeing him carefully, I stand up in the carriage.

“Elisa, no!” cries Hector. Ximena has trapped his sword arm, but he flings her off and rushes toward me. He jerks to a stop midstride, and his face puckers with strain: The animagus has frozen him with magic.

But Hector is the strongest man I know. Fight it, Hector.

Shivering with bone-deep cold, I force myself to step from the carriage. I am what the sorcerer wants, so maybe I can distract him, buy enough time for my guards to flank him, give Hector a chance to break free.

Sun glints off a bit of armor creeping up on the animagus from above, so I keep my gaze steady, and my voice is steel when I say, “I burned your brothers to dust. I will do the same to you.” The lie weighs heavy on my tongue. I’ve harnessed the power of my stone only once, and I’m not sure how.

The animagus’ answering grin is feral and slick. “Surrender yourself. If you do, we will spare your people.”

A guard is within range now. The animagus has not noticed him. The solider quietly feeds an arrow into his bow, aims.

Look strong, Elisa. Do not flinch. Hold his gaze.

The arrow zings through the air. The sorcerer whirls at the sound, but it is too late; the arrowhead buries itself in his ribs.

The animagus wobbles. He turns back to me, eyes flared with pain or zeal, one shoulder hanging lower than the other. Crimson spreads like spilled ink across his robe. “Watch closely, my queen,” he says, and his voice is liquid with drowning. “This is what will happen to everyone in Joya d’Arena if you do not present yourself as a willing sacrifice.”

Hector reaches me at last, grabs my shoulders, and starts to pull me away, even as the guards rush the animagus. But his Godstone already glows like a tiny sun; they will not capture him in time. I expect fire to shoot toward us, to turn my people into craters of melt and char, and suddenly I’m grappling for purchase at the joints of Hector’s armor, at his sword belt, pushing him along, for I can’t bear to see another friend burn.

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