The Empire of Dreams (Fire and Thorns #4) - Rae Carson



THE little girl’s memories began in a dark cellar.

She huddled there, knees to chest, fingertips digging into the earthen floor. She liked the feel of it, the coolness, the slight sting as grit separated skin from nails. The earth had always called to her, and she had always answered. Her mamá despaired of her ever having clean hands.

She would have stayed forever if she could, there in the cool dark, smelling the baskets of turnips and hanging braids of garlic, digging with her fingertips. Because it was better than being up there, with the banging and the screaming, which she was definitely not listening to but instead digging and digging and digging. Maybe she could dig a tunnel to the other side of the world, or at least a hole so deep she could disappear for real.

She thought hard about the other side of the world. What it must be like. Everyone said it was hotter than a fire pit in summer, with a sea of sand that stretched as far as the eye could see. She’d love to see something like that, she truly would.

The girl imagined it so hard that she did a wonderful job of not listening to up there for a very long time. Until she realized she had to pee.

The outhouse was up the ladder, out the door, and off to the right of the hut she shared with her mamá. She was not to leave the cellar. Mamá had specifically said to hide, to be silent, to not cry, no matter what happened. No matter what happens. But she was a big girl now, and big girls did not pee in their drawers.

The girl pressed her knees tighter together. It would be over soon. The noises would stop; the trapdoor would open. Light would pour down, and Mamá’s hand would reach into the darkness to lift her out.

Something banged against the floor directly overhead. She looked up, startled, as dust fluttered down and peppered her eyes. The girl did not whimper, or even gasp. She blinked against the dirt, blinked and blinked until her cheeks ran with tears. But she would not cry out, and she would not pee. “Put on your big-girl face,” Mamá had said.

“Where is it?” someone yelled. A man, with as monstrous a voice as she’d ever heard.

Someone responded, and though she couldn’t make out the pleading words, she’d know her mamá’s tone and cadence no matter what.

“How much must I destroy before you tell me?” the monster said.

Whatever reply her mamá made was drowned out by a great crash. Something large had been knocked to the floor. The table maybe. Then came the kettle, clanging against the stone hearth, and the girl stopped digging to put her hands over her ears.

The crashing and pounding went on and on, raining dust onto her head as she cowered in the dark. She pressed her palms to her ears, hard, hard, harder, until her skull hurt.

Silence came, as sudden as a blow.

The girl dared to remove her hands and lift her head, and it seemed that her heart pounding into the strange new quiet was as loud as a scream, and surely if the monster was still up there, he could hear it too.

Boot steps traversed the floor above, slow and deliberate. Her mamá said one word, clear and bold: “Please.”

The thunk that came was not so loud as before, but there was a wetness to it that made a bit of pee blossom warm in the girl’s drawers. She clenched tight—clenched her legs, her breath, her soul—and prayed for the monster to go away.

Instead, he continued to sift through all the things that belonged to them, and the girl knew they were in ruins, even without seeing. The table, which they had painted together with vines and flowers. The clay vase on the mantel. The iron spit and the spice rack above it, hanging with dried lavender. The cupboard with the missing drawer where the girl kept Rosita, her straw doll. The rope bed with feather ticking that she and Mamá shared.

The monster was searching for something, even though she couldn’t imagine what. She and Mamá barely had enough food to eat, much less a treasure worth searching for.

The boot steps ceased. Light peeked through the slats above her head. The monster had pulled up the braid rug that covered the door to the cellar.

No, no, no, no, the girl prayed. Mamá was always praying. Praying for more food, praying her toothache