The kiss of deception, p.11
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.11

           Mary E. Pearson
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  “It wasn’t hard to find, a false drawer in a bureau, and one of my long hairpins easily picked the simple lock.”

  “Are you going to leave me waiting in suspense? What did you steal?”

  “That’s the strange part. I’m not sure.”

  He smirked, as if I was being coy.

  “Truly, Walther. It was a few loose papers and two small books. Very thin old volumes. They were wrapped in a soft leather sleeve and placed in a gold box, but I can’t read either of them. They’re in ancient or foreign tongues.”

  “Why would he hide them? He has his stable of lackeys who could translate them.”

  “Unless they already did.” Which meant they should be part of the official collection. All recovered artifacts from ruins belonged to the realm, even ones found by soldiers in distant lands. It was a crime to secrete them away.

  We both knew the Scholar was the Royal Scholar for good reason. He was not only the expert on the Morrighan Book of Holy Text but was also well versed in the translation of other ancient languages—though maybe not as gifted as some supposed. I had seen him stumble in some of the simplest dialects, and when corrected by me, he’d been undone with anger.

  “Why don’t you try to translate them?”

  “And just when would I have the leisure, my dear Prince Walther? Between being a fugitive princess, the caretaker of three donkeys, sweeping out rooms, and serving meals, I’m lucky if I have time to bathe. We aren’t all leading the regal life.” I used my most haughty royal tone, making him laugh. I didn’t mention my other activities, like berry picking with handsome young men. “Besides,” I added, “translating isn’t a small task when one has no knowledge of the language. The only clues I have are cataloging notations in the loose papers. One of the volumes is titled Ve Feray Daclara au Gaudrel, and the other is from Venda.”

  “A volume from Venda? The barbarians read?”

  I smiled. “Well, at least at one time they did. It might very well be the jeweled gold box that they were in that the Chancellor is so sorely missing. Its worth alone would probably allow him to add yet another wing to his sprawling country manor.”

  “Or maybe it’s a new find, and the Scholar’s afraid you’ll translate it first and steal his thunder. He does have his position to keep secure.”

  “Maybe,” I answered. But somehow I was sure the volumes weren’t new, that they had been hidden in that dark drawer for a very long time, maybe so long even the Scholar had forgotten them.

  Walther squeezed my hand. “Be careful, Lia,” he said solemnly. “Whatever the reason, they want it back very much. I’ll discreetly nose around when I get back and see if Mother or Father knows anything about it. Or maybe the Viceregent.”

  “Don’t let on that you’ve seen me!”

  “Discreetly,” he repeated.

  I nodded. “Enough about the Scholar,” I said. The conversation was becoming too somber, and I wanted to enjoy this gift of time with Walther. “Tell me other news from home.”

  He looked down for a moment and then smiled.

  “What?” I demanded. “Tell me!”

  His eyes glistened. “Greta is … I’m going to be a father.”

  I stared at him, unable to speak. I had never seen my brother look quite so happy, not even on his wedding day, when he nervously tugged at his coat and Bryn had to keep jabbing him to stop. He glowed the way an expectant mother would. Walther, a father. And what a remarkable one he would be.

  “Aren’t you going to say something?” he asked.

  I burst into joyous laughter and hugged him, asking him question after question. Yes, Greta was doing just fine. The baby was expected in December. He didn’t care, boy or girl—maybe they’d get lucky and have both. Yes, he was so happy, so in love, so ready to begin a family with Greta. Right now they were stopping over in Luiseveque, which was how he was able to come to Terravin. They were on their way to Greta’s parents’ manor in the south, where she would stay on while he left to fulfill his last patrol. Then before the baby was born, they would return to Civica, and then, and then, and then …

  I worked to hide the unexpected sadness growing in me as it dawned that none of the events he mentioned would include me. Because of my new life in hiding, I might never know my first niece or nephew, though if I had been dispatched to the outer reaches of Dalbreck, my chances would have been no better of ever seeing this child.

  I stared at my brother, his nose slightly crooked, his eyes set deep, his cheeks dimpled with joy, twenty-three and more man than boy now, broad strong shoulders for holding a child, already becoming a father right before my eyes. I looked at his happiness, and mine returned. That was how it had always been. Walther always cheered me when no one else could.

  He talked on, and I hardly noticed the forest darkening around us until he jumped up. “We both need to go. Will you be all right on your own?”

  “I nearly sliced you in two when I first got here,” I said, patting my sheathed knife.

  “Keeping up your practice?”

  “Not a bit, I’m afraid.”

  I stooped to pick up the blanket, but he stopped me, grabbing my arm gently and shaking his head. “It’s not right that you had to practice in private, Lia. When I’m king, things will be different.”

  “You plan on seizing the throne soon?” I teased.

  He smiled. “The time will come. But promise me in the meantime to keep up your practice.”

  I nodded. “I promise.”

  “Hurry, then, before it gets dark.”

  We gathered up the blanket and basket, and he kissed my cheek. “You’re happy with your new life here?”

  “I could only be happier if you, Bryn, and Regan were here with me.”

  “Patience, Lia. We’ll figure out something. Here, take this,” he said, shoving the basket into my hands. “A little morsel in the bottom to tide you over. I’ll stop in again before I leave on patrol. Stay safe until then.”

  I nodded, mulling over the realization that he had so many responsibilities now—husband, father, soldier—and ultimately heir to the throne. He shouldn’t have to fit worries of me in there too, but I was glad he did. “Give Greta my love and glad tidings.”

  “I will.” He turned to leave, but I blurted out another question, unable to let him go.

  “Walther, when was it that you knew you loved Greta?”

  The look that always descended on him when he spoke of Greta settled over him like a silken cloud. He sighed. “I knew the minute I laid eyes on her.”

  My face must have betrayed my disappointment. He reached out and pinched my chin. “I know the arranged marriage planted seeds of doubt for you, but someone will come along, someone worthy of you. And you’ll know it the minute you meet him.”

  Again, it wasn’t the answer I hoped for, but I nodded and then thought of Pauline and her worries. “Walther, I promise this is my last question, but have you any news of Mikael?”

  “Mikael?”

  “He’s in the Guard. He was on patrol. A young blond fellow. He should have been back by now.”

  I watched him search his memory, shaking his head. “I don’t know any—”

  I added more scattered details that Pauline had given me about him, including a silly red cravat that he sometimes wore when off duty. Walther’s gaze shot up at me. “Mikael. Of course. I know who he is.” His brows drew together in a rare menacing way, darkening his whole face. “You aren’t involved with him, are you?”

  “No, of course not, but—”

  “Good. Steer clear of his sort. His platoon’s been back for two weeks. Last I saw of him, he was at the pub, fuller than a tick, with a maid on each knee. That scoundrel’s got a sugared tongue and a swooning girl in every town from here to Civica—and he’s known to brag about it.”

  I gaped at him, unable to speak.

  He grimaced. “Oh, good gods, if it’s not you, it’s Pauline. She had eyes for him?”

  I nodded.

  “Then so
much the better that she’s free of him now and here with you. He’s nothing but trouble. Make sure she stays away from him.”

  “Are you certain, Walther? Mikael?”

  “He boasts about his conquests and the broken hearts he’s left behind as if they’re medals pinned on his chest. I’m certain.”

  He said his hurried good-byes with a mindful eye to the growing darkness, but I left mostly in a daze, hardly remembering the steps that took me back to the cottage.

  She’s free of him now.

  No, not now. Not ever.

  What would I tell her? It would be easier if Mikael were dead.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  KADEN

  So.

  Our princess has a lover.

  When I followed her into the forest, I thought I was finally going to get what I needed—time alone with her. But the farther she went, the more curious I became. Where could she possibly be going? My mind conjured a lot of possibilities but never conceived of the one that took me by surprise.

  I watched her fly into his arms, kissing him, holding him like she’d never let go. The young man was obviously just as happy to see her. They disappeared into the ruins, still tangled in each other’s arms. What happened from there wasn’t hard for me to imagine.

  All along, that was what drove her.

  A lover.

  That was why she ran from the marriage. I didn’t know why I should feel sick. Maybe it was the way she had looked into my eyes this morning. The way she lingered. The blush on her cheeks. It did something to me. Something I liked. Something that made me think maybe things could still be different. I thought about it all day as I rode to Luiseveque to leave a message. And then all the way back again, even though I tried to banish her from my thoughts. Maybe things could be different. Evidently not.

  It felt like I had been punched in the gut—a feeling I wasn’t accustomed to. I usually guarded myself well in that regard. Wounds in the field were one thing, but these kind, they were sheer stupidity. I may have had the air knocked out of me, but Rafe looked like he had been trampled. Stupid sot.

  When I turned to leave, he was standing just a dozen feet away, not even trying to hide his presence. He had seen it all. Apparently the smitten jackass had followed us. He didn’t speak when I saw him. I suspected he couldn’t.

  I brushed past him. “It seems she’s true to her word. She isn’t the innocent sort, is she?”

  He didn’t reply. A reply would have been redundant. His face already said it. Maybe now he’d be on his way once and for all.

  Always on the wind.

  I hear them coming.

  Tell me again, Ama, about the storm.

  There is no time for a story, child.

  Please, Ama.

  Her eyes are hollow.

  There is no supper tonight.

  A story is all I have to fill her.

  It was a storm, that’s all I remember.

  A storm that wouldn’t end.

  A great storm, she prompts.

  I sigh, Yes, and pull her to my lap.

  Once upon a time, child,

  Long, long ago,

  Seven stars were flung from the sky.

  One to shake the mountains,

  One to churn the seas,

  One to choke the air,

  And four to test the hearts of men.

  A thousand knives of light

  Grew to an explosive rolling cloud,

  Like a hungry monster.

  Only a little princess found grace,

  A princess just like you.…

  A storm that made the ways of old meaningless.

  A sharp knife, a careful aim, an iron will, and a listening heart,

  Those were the only things that mattered.

  And moving on. Always moving on.

  Come, child, it is time to go.

  The scavengers, I hear them rustling in the hills.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  There were so many things I had wanted to say to Pauline today. So many things that seemed important at the time. I was going to lecture her for spreading stories about my fear of rabbits. Tease her for her undying resourcefulness even when sick. Tell her about Rafe bringing the baskets and my time in the canyon with him. I wanted to ask her what she thought it meant and talk about all the details of our lives, just as we always did at the end of the day when we were back in our room.

  Now here I was, alone in the dark, unable to face her, scratching a donkey behind his ears, whispering to him, “What should I do? What should I do?”

  I had arrived terribly late to the dining room, bursting into the kitchen. Berdi was steaming as much as her kettle of stew. I had intended to tell her why I was late, but all I could utter was I have news of Mikael before my throat sealed shut. Berdi’s steam vanished, and she nodded, handing me a plate, and from there, the evening went by rote, a reprieve from the inevitable. I was so busy there wasn’t time for further explanations. I smiled, I welcomed, I delivered, I cleaned. But my spicy words were few. Once I was caught at the watering station, staring at nothing at all, while the mug I was filling spilled over with cider. Pauline touched my elbow and asked if I was all right. “Just tired,” I answered. “I had a lot of sun today.” She tried to apologize for not helping with the berries, but I cut her short to go deliver the cider.

  Kaden came alone to the dining room. I was relieved that Rafe hadn’t come. I was troubled enough without having to navigate his dark moods. Still, I found myself looking at the tavern door each time it opened, thinking he had to eat sooner or later. I tried to smile and offer my standard greetings to everyone, but when I brought Kaden his meal, he stopped me before I rushed off.

  “Your fire seems dampened tonight, Lia.”

  “I’m sorry. I might be a bit distracted. Did I forget something you wanted?”

  “Your service is fine. What has you bothered?”

  I paused, touched that he perceived my rattled state. “It’s only a little throbbing in my head. It will be fine.”

  His eyes remained fixed on me; apparently he was unconvinced. I sighed and conceded. “I’m afraid I received some disheartening news today from my brother.”

  His brows rose as if this news greatly surprised him. “Your brother is here?”

  I smiled. Walther. I’d forgotten how happy I had been. “He was here for a brief visit this evening. I was overjoyed to see him, but unfortunately we had to part on some difficult news.”

  “A tall fellow? Riding a tobiano? I think I may have passed him on the highway today.”

  I was surprised that Walther would take the main highway from Luiseveque and not stick to the back trails. “Yes, that was him,” I answered.

  Kaden nodded and sat back in his chair as if he was already satisfied with his meal, though he hadn’t yet touched a bite. “I can see the resemblance, now that you’ve told me. The dark hair, the cheekbones…”

  He had observed much in such a short passing on the road, but then again, he had already proved himself observant when he noted my lack of fire in a bustling tavern.

  He leaned forward. “Is there anything I can do?”

  His voice was warm and slow and reminded me of the gentle rumble of a distant summer storm—so inviting at a distance. And those eyes again, the ones that made me feel naked, like he saw beneath my skin. I knew I couldn’t sit down and tell him my worries, but his steadfast gaze made me want to.

  “Nothing,” I whispered. He reached out and squeezed my hand. More silent seconds ticked between us. “I need to be about my duties, Kaden.”

  Glancing across the room, I saw Berdi watching from the kitchen door and wondered what she must think, then wondered who else saw—and, really, was it anything I should feel guilty about? Wasn’t it good to know someone was worried about me when others were seeking to put a rope about my neck? I was grateful for his kindness, but I pulled my hand from his.

  “Thank you,” I whispered, af
raid my voice might crack, and I hurried away.

  When our evening work was done, I left Pauline gaping at the kitchen door as I rushed out by myself, claiming I needed fresh air and was going for a walk. But I didn’t walk. I got only as far as Otto’s stall. It was dark and deserted, and my worries would be safe with him. I balanced on the top rail of the stall, hugging a post with one hand and scratching his ears with the other. He didn’t question my late-night attentions. He accepted them gratefully, which made my chest pull tighter. I struggled to choke back sobs. What should I do?

  The truth would kill her.

  I heard a rustle, the hollow thump of metal. I froze, looking into the darkness.

  “Who’s there?”

  There was no answer.

  And then more noise, seemingly from a different direction. I reeled, confused, jumped from the rail, and called out again. “Who’s there?”

  In a slash of moonlight, Pauline’s pale face appeared.

  “It’s me. We need to talk.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  RAFE

  It wasn’t my intention to witness what I did. If I could have moved quietly away I would have, but I was trapped. It seemed that in one day I had witnessed far more by chance than by intention.

  I had gone to a pub in town for my evening meal, not wanting to encounter the princess again. I had had enough for one day. Enough of her royal conniving antics altogether. I’d already told myself she was an imperious pain. Better for me that she was. It was easier to keep my distance that way. But as I drank my third cider and barely touched my food, I found I was still trying to sort through what happened, and with each sip, I damned her again.

  Only this morning when I had seen her in the canyon, I was tongue-tied. She’d looked just like any other girl out gathering berries. Her hair braided back, loose strands brushing her neck, her cheeks flushed with heat. No pretense. No royal airs. No secrets that I didn’t already know. Words had run through my mind trying to describe her, but none seemed quite right. I had sat like a witless fool on the back of my horse, just staring. And then she invited me to stay. As we walked, I knew I was going down a dangerous path, but that didn’t stop me. At first I kept all my words in check, carefully doled out, but then in an uncanny way, she pulled them from me anyway. It all seemed very easy and innocent. Until it wasn’t. I should have known.

 
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