The kiss of deception, p.14
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.14

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  With my hands now full, I made my way back to the inn, smiling, picturing something more cheerful on Pauline’s head than the somber white mourning scarf, though I wasn’t sure I could convince her to wear the garland instead. I took the upper road back to the inn, no more than a wide dirt trail, taking advantage of the shade and the quiet. The wind whispered a soothing hush through the pines, while a complaining jay sometimes jarred the peace and a scolding squirrel chirped back. I had a little something extra in my bundle for Walther and Greta. Something sweet and lacy and small. I couldn’t wait to give it to him. Walther’s hands would be so large and clumsy holding it. It made me smile. When did he say he would stop by again?

  Be careful, sister, be careful.

  Something cold crouched low in my gut, and I stopped walking. His warning was so close, so immediate, but distant too.

  “Walther?” I called out, knowing he couldn’t possibly be here, but—

  I heard the footsteps, but too late. I didn’t even have time to turn before I was crushed by an arm across my chest. I was yanked backward, my arms pinned at my sides. A brutal hand clamped down on my wrist. I screamed but then felt the prick of a knife at my throat and heard a warning not to utter another sound. I could smell him, the stench of rotten teeth on hot breath, oily unwashed hair, and the overwhelming odor of sweat-soaked clothing, all of it as oppressive as the arm that squeezed me. The knife pressed into my flesh, and I felt the tickle of blood running into the hollow of my neck.

  “I have no money,” I said. “Just a—”

  “I’m going to tell you this once only. I want what you stole.”

  My knife was sheathed beneath my jerkin at my left side, just inches from my fingers, but I couldn’t reach up with my left hand to get it, and my right arm was held tight in his grip. If I could just buy some time.

  “I’ve stolen many things,” I said. “Which one—”

  “This knife is courtesy of the Scholar and Chancellor,” he growled. “That should help you remember.”

  “I didn’t take anything of theirs.”

  He shifted his grip, pushing the knife higher so I had to press back against him to avoid having it cut deeper into my skin. I didn’t dare breathe or move, even though he loosened his hold on my arm. He produced a piece of paper, shaking it in front of my eyes. “And this note says different. The Scholar told me to tell you he wasn’t amused.”

  I recognized the note. My own.

  Such an intriguing piece, but tsk, not properly

  shelved. It is now. I hope you don’t mind.

  “If I give it back, you’ll kill me.” The only parts of my body I could move were my legs. I gingerly shuffled my right boot along the dirt, trying to find where his foot was positioned behind me. I finally met with something solid. My blood pounded in my ears, every part of me on fire.

  “I’m paid to kill you either way,” he answered, “but I could make it more painful for you if that’s the way you want it. And then there’s that pretty friend of yours—”

  My knee jerked upward, and I stomped down on the top of his foot as hard as I could, my elbow jamming back into his ribs at the same time. I jumped away and whirled at him, pulling out my knife. He was coming at me, grimacing in pain, but then he abruptly stopped. His eyes widened unnaturally and then his face lost all expression except for his bulging eyes. He crumpled to the ground, falling to his knees. I looked at the knife in my hands, wondering if I had thrust it into him without even knowing it. He fell forward at my feet, facedown, his fingers twitching in the dirt.

  I saw movement. Kaden was ten yards away, a crossbow at his side, Rafe a bit farther behind him. They rushed toward me but stopped a few feet away.

  “Lia,” Rafe said, holding his hand out, “give me the knife.”

  I looked down at the weapon still clutched in my hand and then back at him. I shook my head. “I’m all right.” I brushed my jerkin aside and tried to return the knife to its sheath, but it spilled from my fingers to the ground. Kaden retrieved it and slid it into its thin leather casing for me. I stared at what was left of the garlands crushed beneath our feet in the scuffle, tiny pieces of pink and lavender scattered across the forest floor.

  “Your neck,” Rafe said. “Let me see.” He lifted my chin and wiped at the blood with his thumb.

  Everything still seemed to be happening in fast jerky movements. Rafe produced a piece of cloth—a kerchief?—and pressed it to my neck. “We’ll have Berdi look at it. Can you hold this here?” I nodded and he lifted my hand to my neck, pressing my fingers into the cloth. He walked over and kicked the man’s shoulder to make sure he was dead. I knew he was. His fingers were no longer twitching.

  “I heard you scream,” Kaden said, “but I couldn’t get a clear shot at him until you pushed away. At this range, the arrow might have gone straight through him into you.” He set his crossbow down and knelt beside the body, breaking off the arrow that protruded from the man’s back. Together he and Rafe rolled him over.

  We all stared at the man, whose eyes were still open. Blood filled deep creases on either side of his mouth, making him look like a startled puppet.

  Neither of them seemed affected by his appearance. Perhaps they had examined many dead bodies. I hadn’t. My knees weakened.

  “Do you know him?” Rafe asked.

  I shook my head.

  Kaden stood. “What did he want?”

  “Money,” I said automatically, surprising myself. “He just wanted money.” I couldn’t tell them the truth without revealing who I was. And then I saw the note, the small piece of paper written in my own hand, fluttering only inches from his fingers.

  “Do we call the constable?” Kaden asked.

  “No!” I said. “Please, don’t! I can’t—” I took a step forward, and my knees melted away, blood rushing behind my eyes, the world spinning. I felt hands catching me, scooping beneath my legs.

  Carry her back. I’ll take care of the body.

  My head spun, and I tried to breathe deeply, fearing I would retch, a hand holding the cloth to my neck again. Breathe, Lia, breathe. You’ll be all right … but with my world spinning, I wasn’t sure if the words I heard were Kaden’s or my own.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  RAFE

  I wrestled with the body, hoisting it across the back of my horse. Blood smeared my shoulder. The smell of decay hadn’t set in yet, but I had to turn away from the rank odor of neglect and excrement for a breath of fresh air. That’s the way of death. There’s no dignity in it.

  A deep, rugged gorge was just over the ridge. I headed there, leading my horse through the woods. Animals and the elements would take care of the body long before anyone ventured into that remote abyss. It was all he deserved.

  I couldn’t get the image of her bloody neck out of my mind. I had seen plenty of bloody necks before, but … ordered by her own father? It was no ordinary bandit who attacked her. This man had been on the road for weeks looking for her. I knew there was a warrant posted for her arrest and a bounty for her return. It had been chattered about in a town I stopped in near Civica when I was searching for her myself. I thought the warrant was only a shallow gesture to appease Dalbreck.

  Just who were the barbarians now? The Vendans or the Morrighese? What kind of father ordered his own daughter’s murder? Even wolves protect their own cubs. No wonder she ran.

  Killing in the name of war was one thing. Killing one’s own kin was quite another.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  “One free morning! One free morning, and look at the trouble you get into!” Berdi said, dabbing at my neck.

  Kaden sat beside me holding a bucket in case I retched again.

  “It wasn’t as though I went out looking for bandits,” I replied.

  Berdi shot a stern knowing glance at me. There were no bandits in Terravin—not on an upper remote trail, preying on a girl wearing threadbare clothing who had little money—but with Kaden sitting there, she covered for me just the same. “W
ith the town full of strangers right now, you have to be more careful.”

  The knife had scraped my neck more than cut it. Berdi said the wound was no bigger than a fleabite, but necks are bleeders. She put a stinging balm on the cut, and I flinched. “Hold still!” she scolded.

  “I’m fine. Stop making such a fuss over a little—”

  “Look at you! Your neck is slashed from here to there—”

  “You just said it was no bigger than a fleabite.”

  She pointed to my lap. “And you’re still shaking like a leaf!”

  I looked down at my knees, bouncing in place. I forced them to stop. “When you’ve tossed up your whole morning meal, you’re bound to feel shaky.”

  She didn’t ask why I had tossed my morning meal. She knew I wasn’t squeamish about blood, but we all carefully skirted the subject of the body. Kaden had simply told her Rafe was taking care of it. She didn’t ask what that meant. I didn’t either. We were just glad that the matter was being taken care of, though I wondered what he’d do with a body if not take it to the constable? But I could still hear the way he said it. He wasn’t taking it to the authorities.

  There was no doubt the dead man was a murderous miscreant. Maybe that was all Rafe needed to know. He saw him holding the knife to my throat and saw the blood running down my neck. Why bother the constable when a convenient ravine was so much closer? Maybe that was the way of distant nameless regions. If so, I was glad.

  “You’re sure there was only one bandit?” Berdi asked. “Sometimes they rove in bands.”

  I knew she spoke in code, wanting to know if the person who attacked me could have a whole royal army marching down on the inn by the end of the day.

  “He was a lone bandit. I’m certain. There are no others.”

  She breathed out a long wordless grumble, which I took to be her version of relief.

  “There,” she said, pressing a small bandage to my neck. “Done.” She stirred some powder into a cup of water and held it out to me. “Drink this. It will help settle your stomach.” I drank dutifully, hoping to appease her. “Now, off to your bed to rest,” she said. “I’ll bring some bread and broth along shortly.”

  I was about to protest, but Kaden grabbed my elbow to help me up, and as I stood, I felt the effects of the violent struggle just now settling in. Every part of me ached, my shoulder, my elbow that had jabbed his ribs, my ankle and heel that had stomped down with incredible force, my neck that had twisted back farther than it could naturally go.

  “Just for a little while,” I said. “I’ll be able to work in the dining room tonight.”

  Berdi mumbled something under her breath, and Kaden led me out the kitchen door. As we climbed up the hillside steps, I thanked him for his timely appearance, saying I would surely be dead if he hadn’t come along, and asked how he came to be there.

  “I heard a scream, grabbed my bow, and ran toward the forest. I thought it was Pauline returning from the Sacrista and she had encountered an animal. A bear or panther. I didn’t expect to see you with a knife at your throat.”

  It was the last thing I expected too. “I’m thankful your aim was sure. And the body … will that—”

  “It will disappear,” he said confidently.

  “It’s just that I’m new here myself,” I explained, “and I don’t want to cause problems for Berdi. I’m already on the bad side of some soldiers.”

  “I understand. No one will know. The man deserves no better.”

  He seemed as eager as I was to have any trace of the encounter gone. He’d killed the man only to save me—no one could blame him for that—but perhaps he couldn’t afford questions from a constable right now any more than I could.

  We reached the cottage door, but he still held my arm to support me. “Should I see you inside?” he asked. He was steady and even, as he always was. Except for the brief fit when Rafe’s horse bit him, nothing seemed to ruffle him, even the terror of today.

  His eyes rested on me, two warm circles of brown, and yet they betrayed him, just as they had on that night in the tavern when I first met him. Though composure ruled on the outside, a strange tempest stirred inwardly. He reminded me of Bryn in so many ways, the youngest and wildest of my three brothers. Bryn was always clever enough to put on the correct royal airs in my father’s presence to deflect any suspicion of his misconduct, but my mother could always pinch his chin, look into his eyes, and the truth was revealed. I just couldn’t figure out Kaden’s truth yet.

  “Thank you, but I’m steady now,” I answered. But even as I stood there, I didn’t feel so steady. I was drained. It was as if a week’s worth of energy had been dispatched in just a few quick moments of trying to survive.

  “You’re sure there were no others?” he asked. “No one else that you saw?”

  “I’m certain.” I couldn’t explain that I knew bounty hunters didn’t run in packs and this one especially was on a private mission. His hand slid from my arm, and I was grateful. Berdi was right. I did need to rest.

  I closed the door behind me, took off my bloody shirt, and threw it in the corner. I was too tired to be worried about washing it just now. I sat on the bed, wincing at the pain in my shoulder and neck, then fluffed my pillow, tucking my knife beneath it. I would do as I promised Walther—practice—no matter how early I had to rise. No one would take me by surprise again, but for now a short rest was all I needed. My eyelids grew heavier. What had Berdi given me in that water?

  I slept heavily but remembered Berdi coming into the cottage, sitting on the edge of the bed to say something to me, brushing the hair from my forehead with her hand, and quietly leaving again. I sniffed the aroma of freshly baked bread and chicken broth coming from the table next to me, but I was too tired to eat and fell back asleep until I heard a soft knock on the door.

  I sat up, disoriented. The sun was peeking through the west window. I had slept the whole afternoon. Another tap. “Berdi?”

  “It’s only me. I’ll just leave this out here.”

  “No. Wait,” I called.

  I jumped up and limped to the door, my ankle more painfully stiff now than it had been earlier. Rafe stood there with his finger hooked through the strings of the two bundles I had dropped in the forest. I took them from him and set them on the bed, and when I turned to face him again, he was holding out two delicate garlands, one pink, one lavender. “I think these are like the ones you had?”

  I bit my lip and then finally whispered a small inadequate thank-you as he placed them in my hands. An awkward moment passed, both of us looking at each other, looking away, and then looking back again.

  “Your neck?” he finally asked, turning his head to the side to look at my bandage. I remembered how, only hours ago, his thumb slid across my skin as he held his kerchief to the wound.

  “Berdi said the cut was no bigger than a fleabite. Mostly a bad scrape.”

  “But you’re limping.”

  I rubbed my shoulder. “I hurt all over.”

  “You fought hard.”

  “I had no choice,” I said. I stared at his clothes. He had changed. No trace of a corpse’s blood or the method he used to take care of the body. I was afraid to ask but also afraid not to. “The body?”

  “Don’t ask, Lia. It’s done.”

  I nodded.

  He started to leave, then stopped himself. “I’m sorry.”

  “For what?” I asked.

  “I wish I—” He shook his head. “Just sorry,” he repeated and left down the path. Before I could call after him, I spotted Pauline coming toward the cottage. I ducked back inside, grabbed my bloodied shirt from the floor, and looked for a place to hide it. In our small quarters, that could only mean the wardrobe. I flung open the door and stuffed the shirt into the dark corner, pushing some other things in front of it. I’d retrieve it later to be washed. Pauline had enough worries in her life right now without me adding to them. Among the clutter in the bottom, I spotted the basket Walther had given me. I had been so
consumed with the news he had brought that day, I had hastily tucked it away and forgotten it. He’d said he put a morsel in the bottom to tide me over, but surely it was spoiled by now. I imagined more of the lovely fig cheese gone to waste and braced myself for the smell as I pushed aside the napkin covering the bottom. It wasn’t fig cheese.

  The door flew open, and I spun to face Pauline.

  “What happened to your neck?” she demanded immediately.

  “A little tumble down the stairs with some firewood in my arms. Pure clumsiness.”

  She slammed the door behind her. “That’s Enzo’s job! Why were you doing it?”

  I looked at her, perplexed. It was the most engaged she had been in two weeks. “The laggard wasn’t around today. Every time he comes into a bit of coin, he disappears.”

  She started to go on about my bandage, but I stopped her and drew her to the bed to show her the basket. We sat and I noticed her scarf was gone. Her hair was full and honey gold around her shoulders.

  “Your mourning scarf,” I said.

  “It’s time to move on,” she explained. “I’ve done all I can for my Mikael. Now I have other things that require my attention. And the first thing appears to be you.”

  I reached out and hugged her, pulling her tightly to me. My chest shook. I tried not to make a display, but I held her long and hard until she finally eased away, cautiously looking me over.

  “Is everything all right?”

  Weeks of worry poured out of me, my voice shaking. “Oh, Pauline, I missed you so much. You’re all I have. You’re my family now. And you were so pale and grieved. I feared I might never get you back. And then there were the tears and the silence. The silence—” I stopped, pressing my fingers to my lips, trying to force the quiver away. “The silence was the worst of it all. I was afraid when you told me to go away that you blamed me for Mikael.”

 
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