The kiss of deception, p.13
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.13

           Mary E. Pearson
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  His unruffled sweeping maddened me. “Deliberate deception is not a mistake. It’s calculating and cold,” I told him. “Especially when aimed at the one you profess to love.” He paused mid-swipe as if I had swatted him on the back of the head. “And if one can’t be trusted in love,” I added, “one can’t be trusted in anything.”

  He stopped, and lowered the broom, turning to look at me. He seemed struck by what I’d said, absorbing it as if it were a proclamation deep and profound instead of a hateful rant against a horrible person after a sleepless night. He leaned on the broom, and my stomach flipped over as it always did when I looked at him. A sheen of sweat lit his face.

  “I’m sorry for what your friend’s been through,” he said, “but deception and trust—are they really so unconditional?”


  “You’ve never been guilty of deception?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “Ah, so there are conditions.”

  “Not when it comes to love and gaining a person’s affections.”

  His head tilted in acknowledgement. “Do you suppose your friend feels the same way? Will she ever forgive him for the deception?”

  My heart still ached for Pauline. It ached for me. I shook my head. “Never,” I whispered. “Some things can’t be forgiven.”

  His eyes narrowed as if contemplating the gravity of the unforgivable. That was what I both hated and loved about Rafe. He challenged me on everything I said, but he also listened intently. He listened as if every word I said mattered.


  Though it was already midsummer, the real summer heat arrived at last at the seaside, and I found myself stopping more often to splash my face with water from the pump. In Civica, sometimes summer didn’t arrive at all, the fog rolling in over the hills year-round. Only when we traveled inland for a hunt did we experience any kind of true heat. Now I understood why the thin shifts worn by the local girls were not only appropriate but necessary here. The few clothes Pauline and I had brought with us from Civica were woefully inadequate for the weather of Terravin, but sleeveless chemises or dresses, I had already learned, presented problems of a different kind. I couldn’t be walking around Terravin with a blazing royal wedding kavah on my shoulder.

  I recruited Gwyneth, some strong laundry soap, and one of Berdi’s stiff potato brushes to help me. It was a hot day, so Gwyneth was happy to comply, and we went to the creek shallows.

  She stood behind me and examined the kavah, brushing her fingers along my back. “Most of it’s gone, you know? Except for this small bit on your shoulder.”

  I sighed. “It’s been well over a month. It should all be gone by now.”

  “It’s still quite pronounced. I’m not sure—”

  “Here!” I said, holding the potato brush over my shoulder. “Don’t be afraid to put muscle into it.”

  “Berdi will skin you if she finds you using one of her kitchen brushes.”

  “My back is dirtier than a potato?”

  She grunted and set to work. I tried not to flinch as she rubbed the stiff brush and harsh soap against my skin. After a few minutes, she splashed water on my shoulder to rinse away the suds and take a look at the progress. She sighed. “Are you sure it was only a kavah and not something more permanent?”

  I swam out into deeper water and faced her. “Nothing?”

  She shook her head.

  I dipped below the surface, my eyes open, looking at the blurred world above me. It made no sense. I’d had decorative kavahs painted on my hands and face dozens of times for various celebrations, and they were always gone within a week or two.

  I surfaced and wiped the water from my eyes. “Try again.”

  The corner of her mouth pulled down. “It’s not coming off, Lia.” She sat down on a submerged stone that peeked from the water like a turtle’s shell. “Maybe the priest cast some magic into his words as part of the rites.”

  “Kavahs follow the rules of reason too, Gwyneth. There is no magic.”

  “The rules of reason bow to magic every day,” she countered, “and might have little regard for the small magic of a stubborn kavah on one girl’s shoulder. Are you sure the artisans did nothing different?”

  “I’m certain.” Still, I searched my memories for something. I couldn’t see the artisans as they worked, but I knew the design was all done at the same time with the same brushes and same dyes. I remembered my mother reaching out to comfort me during the ceremony, but instead I felt her touch as a hot sting on my shoulder. Did something go wrong then? And there had been the prayer, the one in Mother’s native tongue that wasn’t tradition. May the gods gird her with strength, shield her with courage, and may truth be her crown. It was an odd prayer, but vague, and surely the words themselves had no power.

  “It’s not so bad, really. And there’s no indication that it’s royal or even a wedding kavah anymore. The crest of Dalbreck and the royal crowns are gone. It’s only a partial claw and vines. It could be there for any reason. Can’t you live with that?”

  Live with a scrap of Dalbreck’s crest peeking over my shoulder for the rest of my life? Not to mention it was the claw of a vicious mythological animal not even found in Morrighan folklore. Still, I remembered when I first saw the kavah, I had thought it was exquisite. Perfection, I had called it, but that was when I thought it would soon be washed away, when I didn’t know it would serve as a permanent reminder of the life I had thrown away. You’ll always be you, Lia. You can’t run from that.

  “It will come off,” I told her. “I’ll just give it more time.”

  She shrugged, and her gaze rose to the golden leaves of a lacy tree branching out above us, hemmed in by the vibrant green of others. She smiled, bittersweet. “Look at the brilliant yellow. Autumn is greedy, no? Already stealing days from summer.”

  I eyed the premature color. “Early, yes, but maybe it all evens out. Maybe there are times summer lingers and refuses to give way to autumn.”

  She sighed. “The rules of reason. Even nature can’t obey.” She stripped off her clothes, throwing them carelessly on the bank. She joined me in the deeper waters, dipping below the surface and then twisting her thick cords of burgundy hair into a long rope. Her milky white shoulders hovered just above the surface. “Will you ever go back?” she asked bluntly.

  I had heard the rumors of war. I knew Gwyneth had too. She still thought that as First Daughter I could change things. That door had never been open to me, and now there was no doubt it was firmly shut, but she probably saw the stubborn kavah as a sign, and I wondered how hard she had really tried to scrub it away. She stared at me, waiting for my answer. Will you ever go back?

  I dipped below the water, and the world grew muted again, the golden leaves above me barely visible, the dull echo of my heart beating in my temples, bubbles of air escaping from my nose, and soon Gwyneth’s question was gone, carried away in the current of the creek, along with all of its expectations.



  I peered through the window. I couldn’t wait much longer. In a few days, my comrades would be here, ready to return to Venda. They’d howl like a pack of dogs if the deed still wasn’t done, eager to be on their way and scornful that I had taken so long over a single small task. One girl’s throat. Even Eben could have managed that.

  But it wouldn’t be one girl. I’d have to kill them both.

  I watched them sleeping. I had the eyes of a cat, the Komizar claimed, seeing in darkness what no one else could. Maybe that was what destined me for this purpose. Griz was a stomping bull and more suited to the loud work of an ax on a bridge or a bloody daylight raid.

  Not for this kind of work. Not for the silent steps of a night animal. Not for becoming a shadow that pounced with swift precision. But they slept in the same bed, their hands touching. Even I couldn’t be that silent. Death made noises of its own.

  I looked at Lia’s throat. Open. Exposed. Easy. But this time it wo
uldn’t be easy.

  After the festival. I could wait until then.



  Only their feet were visible beneath the curtain of dripping sheets that hung from the line, but I could hear them well enough. I had come to pay Berdi for my week’s lodging before I left for Luiseveque. It was the nearest town where messages could be sent and the couriers were discreet for a sufficient price.

  I paused, looking at Lia’s boots as she went about her work. Dammit, if everything about her doesn’t fascinate me. The leather was worn and dirty, and they were the only shoes I had ever seen her wear. She didn’t seem to care. Maybe growing up with three older brothers gave her different sensibilities from the girls of noble breeding I had known. Either she had never acted like a princess, or she rejected every aspect of being one when she arrived here. She’d have made a miserable fit for the court of Dalbreck, where the protocol of dress was elevated to laborious and religious proportions.

  I fumbled for the Morrighan notes in my pocket to give to Berdi. Lia’s hands reached down below the bottom edge of the sheet, and she pulled another piece of wet laundry from the basket. “Were you ever in love, Berdi?” she asked.

  I stopped, my hand still shoved in my pocket. Berdi was silent for a long while.

  “Yes,” she finally said. “A long time ago.”

  “You didn’t marry?”

  “No. We were very much in love, though. By the gods, he was handsome. Not in the usual sense. His nose was hooked. His eyes set close. And there wasn’t a lot of hair up on top, but he lit up the room when he walked in. He had what I called presence.”

  “What happened?”

  Berdi was an old woman, and yet I noticed she sighed as if the memory were fresh. “I couldn’t leave here, and he couldn’t stay. That pretty much tells it all.”

  Lia questioned her more, and Berdi told her the man was a stonecutter with a business in the city of Sacraments. He’d wanted her to come away with him, but her mother had passed on, her father was getting older, and she was afraid to leave him alone with the tavern to run.

  “Do you regret not going?”

  “I can’t think about things like that now. What’s done is done. I did what I had to do at the time.” Berdi’s knobby hand reached down for a handful of pegs.

  “But what if—”

  “Why don’t we talk about you for a while?” Berdi asked. “Are you still happy with your decision to leave home now that you’ve had some time here?”

  “I couldn’t be happier. And once Pauline is feeling better, I’ll be delirious.”

  “Even though some people still think the tradition and duty of—”

  “Stop! Those are two words I never want to hear again,” I heard Lia say. “Tradition and duty. I don’t care what others think.”

  Berdi grunted. “Well, I suppose in Dalbreck they aren’t—”

  “And that’s the third word I never want to hear again. Ever! Dalbreck!”

  I crumpled the notes in my fist, listening, feeling my pulse rush.

  “They were as much a cause of my problems as anyone. What kind of prince—”

  Her voice cut off, and there was a long silence. I waited, and finally I heard Berdi say gently, “It’s all right, Lia. You can talk about it.”

  The silence continued and when Lia finally spoke again, her voice was weak. “All my life I dreamed about someone loving me for me. For who I was. Not the king’s daughter. Not First Daughter. Just me. And certainly not because a piece of paper commanded it.”

  She nudged the laundry basket with her boot. “Is it asking too much to want to be loved? To look into someone’s eyes and see—” Her voice cracked, and there was more silence. “And see tenderness. To know that he truly wants to be with you and share his life with you.”

  I felt the hot blood drain from my temples, my neck suddenly damp.

  “I know some nobility still have arranged marriages,” she went on, “but it isn’t so common anymore. My brother married for love. Greta’s not even a First Daughter. I thought one day I’d find someone too, until—”

  Her voice broke again.

  “Go on,” Berdi said. “You’ve held it in far too long. You might as well get it all out.”

  Lia cleared her throat, and her words rushed out hot and earnest. “Until the king of Dalbreck proposed the marriage to the cabinet. It was his idea. Do I look like a horse, Berdi? I’m not a horse for sale.”

  “Of course you’re not,” Berdi agreed.

  “And what kind of man allows his papa to secure a bride for him?”

  “No man at all.”

  “He couldn’t even be bothered to come see me before the wedding,” she sniffed. “He didn’t care who he married. I might as well have been an old broodmare. He’s nothing more than a princely papa’s boy following orders. I could never have a morsel of respect for a man like that.”

  “That’s understandable.”

  Yes, I supposed it was.

  I shoved the notes back into my pocket and left. I would pay Berdi later.

  Only a small remnant

  of the whole earth remained.

  They endured three generations

  of testing and trial,

  winnowing the purest from those

  who still turned toward darkness.

  —Morrighan Book of Holy Text, Vol. IV


  I strolled through Terravin swinging a stringed bundle in each hand. One for me and one for Pauline. I didn’t need Otto to carry these light loads, and I wanted the freedom of venturing down pathways and avenues at a leisurely pace, so today I walked to town on my own.

  With all in order at the inn, Berdi told me to take the day and spend it as I chose. Pauline still passed her days at the Sacrista, so I went alone with only one acquisition in mind. I might have to wait for the kavah to fade, but that didn’t mean I had to wear my ragged trousers, heavy skirts, or long-sleeved shirts until it was gone. It was a mere piece of decoration on my shoulder now, with no hint of royalty or betrothal, and whether it stayed or went, I wouldn’t let it rule my dress one more day.

  I walked down near the docks, and the smell of salt, fish, wet timber, and the fresh red paint on the tackle shop swirled on the breeze. It was a healthy, robust smell that suddenly made me smile. It made me think, I love Terravin. Even the air.

  I remembered Gwyneth’s words. Terravin is not paradise, Lia.

  Of course Terravin had its own problems. I didn’t need Gwyneth to tell me it wasn’t perfect. But in Civica, the air itself was tight, waiting to catch you, beat you down, always laced with the scent of watching and warning. Here in Terravin, the air was just air, and whatever it held, it held. It didn’t take anyone hostage, and this showed on the townsfolk’s faces. They were quicker to smile, wave, call you into a shop for a taste, to share a laugh or a bit of news. The town was filled with ease.

  Pauline would get over Mikael. She’d look to the future. Berdi, Gwyneth, and I would help her, and of course Terravin itself, the home she loved. There wasn’t a better place for us to be.

  With tomorrow the first day of the festival, remembrances sprang from all corners of the town, sailors hoisting nets, scrubbing decks, furling sails, favorite verses of this one or that blending effortlessly with their day’s work into a song that stirred me in ways the holy songs never had, a natural music—the flap of sails over our heads, the fishmonger calling out a catch, the swash of water lapping sterns, the bells of distant boats hailing one another, a pause, a note, a jangle, a shout, a laugh, a prayer, the swish of a mop, the rasp of a rope, it all became one song, connected in a magical way that strummed through me.

  Faithful, faithful,

  Hoist there! Pull!

  Pure of heart, pure of mind,

  Holy Remnant, blessed above all,

  Rockfish! Perch! Sablefish! Sole!

  Stars and wind,

  Rain and sun,

  Chosen Remnant, ho
ly one,

  Day of deliverance, freedom, hope,

  Turn the winch! Knot the rope!

  Faithful, faithful,

  Blessed above all,

  Salt and sky, fish and gull,

  Lift up your voice,

  Sing the way there!

  Morrighan leads

  By mercy of gods,

  Fresh fish! Thresher! Bluefin! Cod!

  Journey’s end, through the vale,

  Pull the anchor! Set the sail!

  Morrighan blessed,

  For evermore.

  I turned down a quiet lane back toward the main road, the layers of songs floating behind me. “Evermore,” I whispered, feeling the remembrances in a new way, my voice feeling like it was part of something new, maybe something I could understand.

  I have you, I have you now.

  I looked over my shoulder, the strange gravelly words out of place among the others, but the bay was far behind me now, the sea carrying away the tunes.

  “Ho there, lass! A pretty crown for the festival?”

  I spun. A wrinkled gap-toothed man sat on a stool outside the chandlery, squinting in the midday sun. He held up an arm draped with cheerful garlands of dried flowers to adorn the head. I stopped to admire them, but was cautious about spending any more money. The bundles I carried had already used up most of the coin I’d earned at the tavern in a month. There were still the gems, of course, and one day I would travel to Luiseveque to exchange them, but that money would be set aside for Pauline. She would need it more than I would, so I had to be careful with what little I had. Still, as I held a garland in my hand, I imagined it on my head at the festival and Rafe leaning closer to admire a flower or catch its faint scent. I sighed. I knew that wasn’t likely to happen.

  I shook my head and smiled. “They’re beautiful,” I said, “but not today.”

  “Only a copper,” he offered.

  Back in Civica, I’d have thrown a copper into the fountain just for the fun of seeing where it landed, and indeed a copper was little enough to pay for something so cheery—and the festival did come only once a year. I bought two, one with pink flowers for Pauline’s hair, and one with lavender flowers for mine.

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