Fans of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page will know that every Thursday we have #ThirstyForThursday, where we introduce you to a book or a series we think you’ll be Thirsty for. This week, it is the wonderful FIRE AND THORNS by Rae Carson, out now.
In FIRE AND THORNS, Princess Elisa is a disappointment to her people. Although she bears the Godstone in her navel, a sign that she has been chosen for an act of heroism, they see her as lazy and useless and fat.
On her sixteenth birthday, she is bartered off in royal marriage and shipped away to a kingdom in turmoil, where her much-older-and extremely beautiful-husband refuses to acknowledge her as his wife. Devastated, Elisa decides to take charge of her fate and learn what it means to bear the Godstone. As an invading army threatens to destroy her new home, and everyone at court manoeuvres to take advantage of the young princess, Elisa becomes convinced that, not only is her own life in danger, the whole world needs saving. But how can a young girl who has never ridden horseback, never played the game of politics, and never attained the love of a man save the world? Elisa can’t be sure, but she must try to uncover the Godstone’s secret history before the enemy steals the destiny nestled in her core.
Check out the first chapter below and head over to our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page for a great giveaway later today!
Prayer candles flicker in my bedroom. The Scriptura Sancta lies discarded, pages crumpled, on my bed. Bruises mark my knees from kneeling on the tiles, and the Godstone in my navel throbs. I have been praying—no, begging—that King Alejandro de Vega, my future husband, will be ugly and old and fat.
Today is the day of my wedding. It is also my sixteenth birthday.
I usually avoid mirrors, but the day is momentous enough that I risk a look. I can’t see very well; the lead glass ripples, my head aches, and I am dizzy from hunger. But even blurred, the wedding terno is beautiful, made of silk like water with tiny glass beads that shimmer when I move. Embroidered roses circle the hem and the flared cuffs of my sleeves. It’s a masterpiece, given its rushed stitching.
But I know the terno’s beauty will be much diminished when buttoned.
I sigh and motion for help. Nurse Ximena and Lady Aneaxi creep toward me, armed with button hooks and apologetic smiles.
“Take a deep breath, my sky,” Ximena instructs. “Now let it out. All of it, love.”
I push air from my lungs, push and push until my head swims. The ladies jerk and loop with their flashing hooks; the gown tightens. The bodice in the mirror puckers. It digs into my skin just above my hips. A jagged pain shoots up my side, like the stitch I get walking up the stairs.
“Almost there, Elisa,” Aneaxi assures, but I have a sickening hunch that when next I inhale, the gown’s grip on my lungs will prove deadly. I want to rip it off. I want not to get married.
“Done!” they announce together, and step back, one on each side, to admire their handiwork. “What do you think?” Aneaxi asks in a tiny, faltering voice.
The terno only allows quick, shallow breaths. “I think…” I stare woozily at my breasts. The neckline presses a fleshy furrow into my skin. “Four!” I giggle anxiously. “Four breasts!”
My nurse gets a funny, choking look on her face. When my breasts overcame my chest last year, Ximena had been the one to assure me men would find them irresistible.
“It’s a beautiful gown,” Aneaxi says, looking pointedly at the skirt.
I shake my head. “I am a sausage,” I gasp. “A big, bloated sausage in a white silk casing.” I want to cry. Or laugh. It’s hard to decide.
Laughing nearly wins out, but my two ladies surround me, wrinkled, graying mother hens clucking sympathy and assurance. “No, no, you are a lovely bride!” Aneaxi says. “You’ve had another growth spurt, is all. And such beautiful eyes! King Alejandro won’t notice if the terno is a bit snug.” So I cry, because I cannot bear sympathy and because Ximena won’t look me in the eye when Aneaxi speaks her kindly false words. After a moment, though, the tears are because I don’t want to wear the terno at all.
While I gulp and heave, Aneaxi kisses the top of my head and Ximena wipes at my tears. Crying requires breath. Great, heaping buckets of it. The silk strains, the puckers bite into my waist, the fabric rips. Crystal buttons tinkle against the glazed floor as air rushes into my famished lungs. My stomach responds with an angry growl.
My ladies drop to the floor and run their fingers through the hair of sheepskin rugs, along the crevices between clay tiles, seeking the liberated buttons. “I need another week,” Ximena mutters from the floor. “Just one week to fit you properly. A royal wedding requires some notice!” It frightens me too, the suddenness of it all.
The bodice is loose enough now that I can reach back and undo the remaining buttons by myself. I shrug my arms from the sleeves and start to tug the gown below my hips, but the fabric rips again, so I pull it over my head instead. I toss the gown aside, not caring when the skirt misses my bed and crumples onto the floor. I pull on a rough woolen robe. It scratches my skin, but it is huge and comfortingly shapeless.
I turn my back on the ladies’ scavenging and go downstairs to the kitchens. If my gown isn’t going to fit anyway, I might as well soothe my pounding head and rumbling stomach with a warm pastry.
My older sister, Juana-Alodia, looks up when I enter. I expect her to wish me a happy birthday at least, but she just scowls at my robe. She sits on the hearth ledge, her back against the curving oven. Her legs are elegantly crossed, and she swings a slender ankle back and forth while she nibbles on her bread.
Why is she not the one getting married today?
When he sees me, the kitchen master grins beneath a flour-dusted mustache and shoves a plate at me. The pastry on it is flaky and golden, dusted with ground pistachios and glazed with honey. My mouth waters. I tell him I’ll need two.
I settle next to Alodia, avoiding the hanging brassware near my head. She eyes my plate with distaste. She doesn’t roll her eyes at me, but I feel like she does, and I glare at her. “Elisa…,” she begins, but she doesn’t know what to say, and I make a point of ignoring her by shoving the flaky crust into my mouth. My headache lessens almost immediately.
My sister hates me. I’ve known it for years. Nurse Ximena says it’s because I was chosen by God for an act of service and Juana-Alodia was not. God should have chosen her; she is athletic and sensible, elegant and strong. Better than two sons, Papá says. I study her as I chew my pastry, her shining black hair and chiseled cheeks, the arched eyebrows that frame confident eyes. I hate her right back.
When Papá dies, she will be queen of Orovalle. She wants to rule and I do not, so it is ironic that by marrying King Alejandro, I will be queen of a country twice as large, twice as rich. I don’t know why I am the one marrying. Surely Joya d’Arena’s king would have chosen the beautiful daughter, the queenly one. My mouth freezes, midchew, as I realize that he probably did.
I am the counteroffer.
Tears threaten again, and I clench my jaw until my face aches, because I’d rather be trampled by horses than cry in front of my sister. I imagine what they said to make him agree to this match. She was chosen for service. No, no, nothing has happened yet, but soon, we are certain. Yes, she is fluent in the Lengua Classica. No, not beautiful, but she is clever. The servants love her. And she embroiders a lovely horse.
He would have heard truer things by now. He will know that I am easily bored, that my dresses grow larger with every fitting, that I sweat like a beast during the desert summer. I pray we can be a match in some strange way. Maybe he had the pox when he was young. Maybe he can barely walk. I want a reason not to care when he turns away in disgust.
Alodia has finished her bread. She stands and stretches, flaunting her grace and her length. She gives me a strange look—I suspect it’s pity—and says, “Let me know if… if you need any help today. Getting ready.” And she hurries away before I can answer.
I take the second pastry. It doesn’t taste like anything any¬more, but it’s something to do.
Hours later, I stand with Papá outside the basilica, steeling myself for my bridal walk. The arching doors tower above me; the carved de Riqueza sunburst at their center winks balefully. Beyond the doors, the audience hall buzzes. I am surprised so many could attend on such short notice. Perhaps, though, it is the hurriedness of the whole affair that makes it irresistible. It speaks of secrets and desperation, of pregnant princesses or clandestine treaties. I don’t care about any of this, just that King Alejandro is ugly.
My papá and I await a signal from the herald. It has not occurred to Papá to wish me a happy birthday. I’m shocked when his eyes suddenly shimmer with tears. Maybe he’s sad to see me go. Or maybe he feels guilty.
I gasp with surprise when he pulls me to his chest and grips fiercely. It’s suffocating, but I return his rare embrace eagerly. Papá is tall and lanky like Juana-Alodia. I know he can’t feel my ribs, but I can feel his. He hasn’t eaten much since Invierne began harassing our borders.
“I remember your dedication day,” Papá whispers. I’ve heard the story a hundred times, but never from him. “You were lying in your cradle, swaddled in white silk with red bows. The high priest leaned over with a vial of holy water, ready to pour it on your forehead and name you Juana-Anica.
“But then heaven’s light washed the receiving hall, and the priest sloshed it onto the blanket instead. I knew it was heaven’s light because it was white, not yellow like torchlight, and because it was soft and warm. It made me want to laugh and pray at the same time.” He is smiling at the memory; I can hear it in his voice. I hear pride too, and my chest tightens. “It focused into a tight beam that lit your cradle, and you laughed.” He pats my head, then strokes the linen of my veil. I hear myself sigh. “Only seven days old, but you laughed and laughed.
“Juana-Alodia was the first to toddle over after it faded. Your sister peeled back the wet swaddling and we saw the Godstone lodged in your belly button, warm and alive but blue and faceted, hard as a diamond. That’s when we decided to name you Lucero-Elisa.” Heavenly light, chosen of God. His words suffocate me as surely as his embrace. All my life, I’ve been reminded that I am destined for service.
Trumpets blare, muffled by the doors. Papá releases me and pulls the linen veil over my head. I welcome it; I don’t want anyone to see my terror or the sweat collecting on my upper lip. The doors open outward, revealing the massive chamber with its curved ceiling and painted adobe. It smells of roses and incense. Hundreds of shapes rise from their benches, dressed in bright wedding colors. Through my veil they look like Mamá’s flower garden—orange clumps of bougainvillea dotted with yellow allamanda and pink hibiscus.
The herald calls, “His Majesty, Hitzedar de Riqueza, King of Orovalle! Her Highness, Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza, Princess of Orovalle!”
Papá takes my hand and holds it at shoulder level. His is as wet and fluttery as mine, but we manage a forward glide while a quartet of musicians strums the marriage blessing on their vihuelas. A man stands at the end of the aisle, black clad. His shape is blurred, but he is not short or stooped. Not fat.
We pass stone columns and oak benches. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a lady, a splotch of blue fabric, really. I notice her because she bends and whispers something as I pass. Her companion twitters. My face flushes hot. By the time I reach my tall, steady fiancé, I am praying for pockmarks.
Papá gives my slick hand to the man in black. His hand is large, larger than Papá’s, and it grips with indifferent confidence, as if mine does not feel like a wet, dead fish in his. I want to wrench my fingers back to myself, wipe them on my dress maybe.
Behind me, a sniffle echoes through the hall; Lady Aneaxi’s, no doubt, for she has been teary with nostalgia ever since the announcement. Before me, the priest warbles about marriage in the Lengua Classica. I love the language for its lyrical vowels and the way it feels against my teeth, but I can’t pay attention.
There are things I have refused to consider in the days since the announcement. Things I have pushed deep inside with study and embroidery and pastries. And suddenly, standing here in my wedding terno, my hand in the iron grasp of this tall foreigner, I think about them, and my heart pounds.
Tomorrow I go to the desert country of Joya d’Arena to be its queen. I leave the jacaranda tree outside my bedroom window to bloom lilac without me. I leave my painted adobe walls and trickling fountains for a stone castle a millennium old. I leave a newer, vibrant nation for an enormous beast of a country—one scorched by the sun, and stale with the traditions that made my ancestors leave in the first place. I’ve not had the courage to ask Papá or Alodia why. I’m afraid to learn they are glad to be rid of me.
But the most frightening thing of all is I am about to be someone’s wife.
I speak three languages. I’ve nearly memorized the Belleza Guerra and the Scriptura Sancta. I can embroider the hem of a terno in two days. But I feel like a little girl.
Juana-Alodia has always tended to palace affairs. She is the one who tours the country on horseback, who holds court with our papá and charms the nobility. I know nothing of these grown-up, wifelike things. And tonight… I still cannot think about tonight.
I wish my mother were alive.
The priest announces that we are now married, in the sight of God, the King of Orovalle, and the nobleza d’oro. He sprinkles us with holy water harvested from a deep cenote and then motions for us to face each other, saying something about my veil. I turn toward my new husband. My cheeks are hot; I know they will be blotchy and shining with sweat when he lifts the shield from my face.
He releases my hand. I clench it into a fist to keep from wiping it on my terno. I see his fingers on the hem of my veil. They are brown and thick with short, clean nails. Not scholar’s hands, like Master Geraldo’s. He lifts the veil, and I blink as cooler air floods my cheeks. I peer up at the face of my hus¬band, at black hair that sweeps back and curls at his neck, at brown eyes warmer than cinnamon, at a mouth as strong as his fingers.
Something flits across his features—nervousness? Disappointment? But then he smiles at me—not a pitying smile, not a hungry smile, but friendly—and I gasp just a little, my heart a puddle of helpless warmth.
King Alejandro de Vega is the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.
I ought to smile back, but my cheeks won’t obey. He leans forward, and his lips brush mine—a chaste and gentle kiss. With the side of his thumb, he grazes my cheek and whispers, so that only I can hear, “Nice to meet you, Lucero-Elisa.”
Platters of food cover the long table. We sit side by side on the bench, and at last I have something to do besides avoid his eyes. Our shoulders touch as I grab for the battered squid and a glass of wine. I chew quickly, already considering: Green chiles stuffed with cheese, or shredded pork in walnut sauce? Before us, on the floor below the dais, the nobleza d’oro swirls about, goblets in hand. Juana-Alodia drifts among them, slender and beautiful and smiling. They laugh easily with her. I notice surreptitious glances cast toward the man sitting beside me. Why don’t they come and introduce themselves? It is unlike the golden horde to miss the opportunity to charm a king.
I feel his eyes on me. He has just watched me stuff a crisp-fried anchovy into my mouth. I am embarrassed, but I can’t resist turning to meet his gaze.
He still wears that friendly smile. “Do you like fish?”
My mouth is full. “Ungh,” I say.
The smile widens. He has beautiful teeth. “Me too.” He reaches for an anchovy and tosses it into his mouth. His eyes crinkle at the edges while he chews, watching me. His mouth is still full, his voice muffled when he says, “We have much to discuss, you and I.”
I swallow and nod. Hearing that ought to frighten me. Instead, a sweetness sparks in my stomach because the king of Joya d’Arena thinks I am a person one discusses things with.
Our banquet passes too quickly. We do talk, a little, but I am mostly a fool because all I can do is watch his lips as they move and listen to his voice.
He asks about my studies. I blurt to him about my hundred¬year-old copy of the Belleza Guerra. His eyes flash with interest when he says, “Yes, your sister told me you are well versed in the art of war.” I’m not sure what to say to this. I don’t want to talk about Juana-Alodia, and I realize how ridiculous I must appear, a sausage child bride who never sits a horse and who wields a dagger only to cut meat. Yet I am fascinated by war and have studied every skirmish in my country’s history.
A hush settles over the milling nobility. I follow their collective gaze toward the small wooden stage. The musicians have departed—I don’t remember hearing the vihuelas cease—and in their place stand my father and sister. She raises a goblet, her arm bare and golden from the sun, and says in a loud, clear voice, “Today we are witness to the new union between Joya d’Arena and Orovalle. May God bless this union with peace and understanding, with prosperity and beauty, and”—she grins hugely—“with many, many children!” And the banquet hall fills with laughter, like it’s the cleverest blessing in the world. My face burns, and I hate my sister more in this moment than ever in my life.
“Now, it’s time to bid the happy couple good-night,” she continues. I’ve attended hundreds of marriage feasts. Still, I jump when Lady Aneaxi’s hand grabs my shoulder. A bevy of servants, dressed in white with garlands of paper flowers, has come with her to escort us to our nuptial chamber.
We rise, the king and I, though I’m not sure how, since my legs buzz with threatening numbness. My armpits feel sticky, my heart pounds. Oh, God. I don’t know what to do. I blink rapidly, determined not to cry.
The servants, grinning and giggling, surround us and herd us from the banquet hall as the golden horde shouts blessings and encouragement. I steal a glance at my husband. For the first time since he lifted the veil from my face, he avoids my gaze.