The kiss of deception, p.12
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.12

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Up on the cliff, when there was nowhere else to go, when our words seemed to matter less, and our proximity mattered more, when I couldn’t force my gaze away from her to save my life, my mind raced with one possibility and one possibility only. I stepped closer. There was a moment. A long breath-holding moment, but then with a few venomous words from her—a terrible mistake, the marks of grunting barbarians—I was slammed with the truth.

  She was not just any seventeen-year-old girl, and I wasn’t any young man helping her pick berries. Our worlds were not similar at all. I had been deluding myself. She had one goal. I had another. She practically spat her condemning words out, and I felt venom surge through me too. I remembered how different we both were, and no distant walk could change that.

  The more I drank, the foggier my anger became, but then flashes of her clandestine rendezvous in the forest would surface to sharpen it again. What had pushed me to follow Kaden? As I watered my horse, I saw him slip down the path toward her cottage and soon I was on his heels. What did I expect? Not what I saw. It explained everything. She has a lover. I knew I had been entertaining a dangerous fantasy.

  After four ciders, I paid my bill and returned to the inn. It was late, and I didn’t think I’d run into anyone. I made a last trip to the privy after unsaddling my horse and was headed for the loft when she appeared, coming down the path hell-bent, her cap clutched in her fist like a weapon, and her hair flying behind her. I stepped into a shadowed corner by the stalls, waiting for her to pass, but she didn’t. She stopped only feet from me, climbing onto the rail where the jackass was stabled.

  It was obvious she was distraught. More than distraught. Fearful. I had come to think she wasn’t afraid of anything. I watched, her lips half parted, her breathing uneven, as she whispered to the donkey, caressing his ears, raking her fingers through his mane, whispering words so strained and low I couldn’t hear them, even though with just a few steps, I could have reached out and touched her.

  I looked at her face, gently illuminated by the distant light of the tavern. Even with her brows pulled low and an anguished crease between them, she was beautiful. It was a strange thing to think at the moment. I had deliberately avoided the thought each time I had looked at her before. I couldn’t afford such thoughts, but now the word came, unbidden, unrelenting.

  I saw more than I was sure she wanted anyone to see. She cried. Tears flowed down her cheeks, and she angrily wiped them away, but then whatever grieved her made the tears inconsequential, and they flowed freely.

  I wanted to step out of the darkness, ask her what was wrong, but quickly suppressed that impulse and questioned my own sanity—or maybe sobriety. She was not to be trusted, flirting with me one moment, meeting a lover the next. I had to remind myself that I didn’t care what her troubles were. I needed to leave. I tried to slide away unnoticed, but the ciders at the pub were strong, and I wasn’t feeling surest of foot. My boot knocked an unseen pail.

  “Who’s there?” she called out. I thought the deception was over and was about to make myself known when the other girl approached, covering my presence.

  “It’s me,” she said. “We need to talk.”

  I was frozen in their world, their worries, their words. I was trapped, and all I could do was listen.


  He came out of nowhere. One moment not there, the next there, scooping Pauline into his arms. “I’ll take her to the cottage,” he said, almost as a question. I nodded, and he left with me trailing just behind him. Pauline was limp in his arms, moaning, inconsolable.

  Just before we reached the cottage, I raced ahead, flinging open the door, turning up the light of the lantern, and he carried her inside.

  I pointed to the bed, and he gently laid her on the mattress. She curled into a tight ball facing the wall. I brushed the tangled mop of hair from her face and touched her cheek.

  “Pauline, what can I do?” What had I already done?

  She moaned between sobs, and the only words that were understandable were go away, please go away.

  I stared at her, unable to move. I couldn’t leave her. I watched her trembling and reached for a blanket, gingerly tucking it around her, stroking her forehead, wishing to take her pain away. I leaned close and whispered, “I’ll stay with you, Pauline. Through everything. I promise.”

  Again, her only discernible words were go away, leave me alone, each one a stab in my chest. I heard the scuff of Rafe’s boots on the floor and realized he was still in the room. He inclined his head toward the door, suggesting that we step outside. I turned the lantern down and followed him, numb, quietly easing the door shut behind us. I leaned back against it, needing its support. What had I said? How had I said it? Did I just blurt the words out cruelly? Still, what else could I have done? I had to tell her something sooner or later. I tried to retrace every word.

  “Lia,” Rafe whispered, lifting my chin to look at him, reminding me of his presence, “are you all right?”

  I shook my head. “I didn’t want to tell her—” I looked at him, uncertain of what he had heard. “Were you there? Did you hear?”

  He nodded. “You had no choice but to tell her the truth.”

  The truth.

  I had told her Mikael was dead. But wasn’t that the lesser of two evils? He wasn’t coming for her. He was never coming. If I had told her the truth, all the dreams she held dear would be gone. They would all be illusions, false at their very roots. She’d know she had been played for a fool. She’d have nothing left to hold on to, only bitterness to harden her heart. This way, couldn’t she at least have tender memories of him to warm her? Which truth was more cruel? His deception and betrayal, or his death?

  “I should go,” Rafe whispered. I glanced back at him. He was so close I could smell the cider on his breath, could feel his pulse, the gallop of his thoughts, every nerve in me raw, the night itself closing in on me.

  I grabbed his arm. “No,” I said. “Please. Don’t go yet.”

  He looked at where my hand grasped his arm, and then back at me. His lips parted, his eyes warmed, but then slowly, something else filled them, something cold and rigid, and he pulled away. “It’s late.”

  “Of course,” I said, dropping my hand to my side, holding it there awkwardly like it didn’t belong to me. “I only wanted to thank you before you left. If you hadn’t happened along, I don’t know what I would have done.”

  His only response was a nod and then he disappeared down the trail.

  I spent the night sitting in the corner chair staring at Pauline. I tried not to disturb her. For an hour, she stared at the wall, then guttural sobs racked her chest, then mewing cries like those of an injured kitten escaped from her lips, and finally soft gentle moans of Mikael, Mikael, Mikael filled the room, as if he were there and she was talking to him. If I tried to comfort her, she pushed me away, so I sat offering water when I could, offering prayers, offering and offering, but nothing I did took away her pain.

  Just this morning I’d been afraid that I might never meet the young man who loved her so. Now I feared if I ever did meet him, I would cut out his heart with a dull knife and feed it to the gulls.

  Finally, in the early morning hours, she slept, but I still stared. I remembered my ride past the graveyard with Pauline this morning. I had known. Fear had seized me. Something was wrong. Something was hopelessly and irretrievably wrong. My flesh had crawled. Warning breezes. A candle. A prayer. A hope.

  An icy whisper.

  A cold clawed hand on my neck.

  I hadn’t understood what it had meant, but I had known.


  The next several days went by in a flurry of emotion and chores. Endless chores, which I was happy to take on. The morning after the news, Pauline woke up, washed her face, fished three coins from her meager savings of tips, and left for the Sacrista. She was there all day, and when she returned, she was wearing a white silk scarf draped over her head, the mourning symbol reserved for w

  While she was gone, I told Berdi and Gwyneth that Mikael was dead. Gwyneth hadn’t even known he existed, and neither had heard Pauline’s heartfelt stories about him, so they couldn’t quite grasp how she had been affected—until she returned from the Sacrista. Her skin matched the color of the white silk that cascaded down around her face, a pale ghost except for her puffy, red-rimmed eyes. She looked more like a gaunt ghoul returned from the graveyard than the sweet young maid she had been only the day before.

  What worried us more than her appearance was her refusal to talk. She accepted Berdi’s and Gwyneth’s concerns and comforts stoically enough, but shook away more than that, spending most of the days on her knees, offering one holy remembrance after another for Mikael, lighting one candle after another, feverish in lighting his way into the next world.

  Berdi noted that at least she was eating—not much—but enough for basic sustenance. I knew why. That was for Mikael too, and what they still shared. If I had told Pauline the truth about him, would she have cared enough to even touch her food?

  We all agreed we would help her through this, each of us taking on a portion of Pauline’s workload, and we gave her the space she asked for and the time to observe the mourning due a widow. We knew she wasn’t a true widow, but who else was to know? We wouldn’t tell. I was hurt at being shut out, but I had never lost the love of my life, and that was what Mikael had been to her.

  With the festival little more than two weeks away, there was more work to be done than usual, and without Pauline to help, we worked from dawn until the last meal was served in the evening. I thought of the days back at the citadelle when I’d lie awake, unable to sleep, musing about one thing or another, usually an injustice perpetrated by someone with more power than I—and that included just about everyone. I didn’t have that problem now. I slept deep and hard, and if the cottage had caught fire, I would have burned right along with it.

  In spite of the increased workload, I still saw Rafe and Kaden often. In fact, at every turn, one of them seemed to be there, offering assistance with a wash basket or helping me unload supplies from Otto. Gwyneth teased on the sly about their convenient attentions, but it never went further than being helpful. Mostly. One day I heard Kaden roaring with a vengeance. When I ran from cleaning the rooms to see what was wrong, he was emerging from the barn, holding his shoulder and sending up a string of hot curses at Rafe’s horse. It had nipped him on the front of his shoulder and blood was seeping through his shirt.

  I led him to the steps of the tavern and pushed on his good shoulder to make him sit, trying to calm him. I undid the first button of his shirt and pulled it aside to look at the wound. The horse had barely broken the skin, but an ugly palm-sized bruise was already swelling and turning blue. I ran to the icehouse and returned with several chips wrapped in cloth and held it to the wound.

  “I’ll get some bandages and salve,” I said.

  He insisted it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted louder and he relented. I knew where Berdi kept the supplies, and when I returned, he watched every move I made. He said nothing as I applied the ointment with my fingers, but I felt his muscles tense at my touch as I gently pressed the bandage in place with my hand. I placed the pack of ice chips back on top, and he reached up, holding my palm against his shoulder with his own, as if he was holding on to something more than just my hand.

  “Where did you learn to do that?” he asked.

  I laughed. “Apply a bandage? A simple kindness needn’t be learned, and I grew up with older brothers, so there were always bandages being applied to one of us or another.”

  His fingers squeezed around mine, and he stared at me, I thought searching for some sort of thank-you, but then I knew it was more than that. Something deep and tender and private lurked in his dusky eyes. He finally released my hand and looked away, a tinge of pink at his temples. With his gaze still averted, he whispered a simple “thank you.”

  His reaction was puzzling, but the color faded as quickly as it had come, and he pulled his shirt back over his shoulder as if it hadn’t happened.

  “You’re a kind soul, Kaden,” I said. “I’m sure it will heal quickly.”

  When I was halfway through the door to return the unused supplies, I turned and asked, “What language was that? The curses? I didn’t recognize it.”

  His mouth hung half open, and his expression was blank. “Only nonsense words my grandmother taught me,” he said. “Meant to spare a coin of penance.”

  It hadn’t sounded like nonsense to me. It had sounded like angry real words said in the heat of the moment. “I need to learn some of those words. You must teach me one day so I can spare my coins too.”

  The corners of his mouth lifted in a stiff smile. “One day I will.”

  * * *

  With the days growing warmer, I appreciated Rafe’s and Kaden’s help even more, but it made me wonder why they had no work of their own to attend to. They were young and able, and while they both had very nice steeds and tack, they didn’t seem wealthy, yet they paid Berdi cheerfully for the loft, board, and stabling of their horses. Neither one ever seemed to run short of coin. Could an out-of-work farmhand and an idle trader have that much money saved?

  I would have questioned their lack of direction more, but most of Terravin was full of summer visitors who were only biding their time until the festival, including the other guests at the inn, many journeying in from lonely hamlets, isolated farms, and apparently in Rafe’s case, regions with no names. Rafe did say that his lack of work as a farmhand was temporary. Maybe his employer was only taking a break for the festival which also gave him free time.

  Not that either he or Kaden was lazy. They were both always eager to pitch in, Kaden fixing the wheel on Berdi’s wagon without any prompting, and Rafe proving himself as an experienced farmhand, clearing the trenches in Berdi’s vegetable garden and repairing its sticky sluice gate. Gwyneth and I both watched with more than a little interest as he swung the hoe and lifted heavy rocks to reinforce the channel.

  Perhaps, like other festivalgoers, they appreciated this chance for a break from the usual drudgery and routine of their lives. The festival was both sacred obligation and welcome respite in the middle of summer. The town was decorated with colorful flags and ribbons, and doorways were draped with long garlands of pine sprigs in anticipation of the celebrations that would commemorate the deliverance. The Days of Debauchery, my brothers called it, noting that their friends observed in greatest earnest the drinking portion of the festivities.

  The festival lasted for six days. The first day was for holy rites, fasting, and prayer, the second for food, games, and dancing. Each of the remaining four days were given to prayer and acts to honor the four gods who had gifted Morrighan and delivered the Remnant.

  As members of the royal court, our family had always kept strict festival schedules set by the Timekeeper, observing all the sacraments, the fast, the feasts and dancing, all given just and proper time. But I was no longer a member of any court. This year I could set my own schedule and attend the events I chose. I wondered which portion of the festivities Kaden and Rafe would most indulge in.

  For all his attentions, Rafe still kept a measured distance. It made no sense. He could avoid me altogether if he chose, but he didn’t. Maybe he was just filling his time until the festival, but more than once, in one task or another, our fingers touched or our arms brushed, and fire would race through me.

  One day as I walked out the tavern door, he was entering, and we stumbled into each other, our faces so close our breath mingled. I forgot about where I was going. I thought I saw tenderness in his eyes, if not passion, and wondered if the same fire raced through him. As with our other encounters, I waited and hoped, trying not to spoil the moment, but just like the others, it vanished too as Rafe remembered something else he needed to tend to and I was left confused and breathless.

  Every day we seemed to share some sort of banter, maybe several times in one day. As I
swept a porch outside a room, he’d appear as if on his way somewhere and then pause and lean against a post, asking how Pauline was doing or if there might be a room opening up soon, or whatever topic served the moment. I wanted to lean on my broom and talk endlessly to him, but to what end? Sometimes I’d just forget about hoping for more and enjoy his company and closeness.

  I figured if things were meant to be, they happened sooner rather than later, and I tried to put it out of my mind, but in the stillness of the night, I hung on our conversations. As I drifted off to sleep, I dwelled on each word we shared, thinking about every expression on his face, wondering what I was doing wrong. Maybe the problem had been me all along. Maybe I was destined to be unkissed. Unkissable. But as I lay there wondering, I would hear Pauline sleeping fitfully next to me, and I’d be ashamed of my shallow worries.

  One day, after listening to Pauline toss and whimper through most of the night, I viciously attacked the spiderwebs in the eaves of the guest room porches, imagining Mikael sleeping off another all-nighter at a pub with a new girl in his lap. He’s nothing but trouble. Make sure she stays away from him. But still a soldier in the Royal Guard. It sickened me. A soldier with a sugar-coated tongue and an angelic face, but a heart as black as night. I took his deception out on every eight-legged creature that hung from the rafters. Rafe happened by and asked which spider was responsible for putting me in such a foul mood.

  “None of these crawling vermin, I’m afraid, but there’s one with two legs to whom I’d gladly take a club instead of a broom.” I didn’t mention names but told him of a fellow who had deceived a young woman, playing games with her heart.

  “Surely everyone makes a mistake on occasion.” He took the broom from me and proceeded to calmly swipe down the webs that were out of my reach.

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