The kiss of deception, p.15
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.15

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  She pulled me toward her, holding me, and we both cried. “I’d never blame you for that,” she said. She leaned back so she could look into my eyes. “But grief has a way of its own, Lia. A way I can’t control. I know it’s not over yet, but today at the Sacrista…” She paused, blinking back tears. “Today, I felt something. A flutter inside. Here.” She took my hand and pressed it low against her stomach. “I knew it was time for me to prepare for the living.”

  Her eyes glistened. Through all the pain, I saw the hope of joy in her eyes. My throat swelled. This was a journey neither of us could have imagined.

  I smiled and wiped my cheeks. “There’s something I need to show you,” I said. I put the basket between us and moved aside the napkin, pulling out a fat roll of Morrighan notes—a morsel that was supposed to tide me over for some time to come. My brother would understand. “Walther brought this. It was Mikael’s. He said Mikael left a letter saying it was for you if anything should happen to him.” Pauline reached out and touched the thick roll. “So much from a first-year sentry?”

  “He managed his purse well,” I said, knowing any good trait assigned to Mikael would be easily accepted by Pauline.

  She sighed, and a sad smile lined her eyes. “That was Mikael. This will help.”

  I reached out and held her hand. “We’ll all help, Pauline. Berdi, Gwyneth, and I, we’ll all be here for—”

  “Do they know?” she asked.

  I shook my head. “Not yet.”

  But we both knew, either time would tell them or Pauline would. Some truths refused to be hidden.

  Tell me again, Ama. About the warmth. Before.

  The warmth came, child, from where I don’t know.

  My father commanded, and it was there.

  Was your father a god?

  Was he a god? It seemed so.

  He looked like a man.

  But he was strong beyond reason,

  Knowledgeable beyond possible,

  Fearless beyond mortal,

  Powerful as a—

  Let me tell you the story, child, the story of my father.

  Once upon a time, there was a man as great as the gods.…

  But even the great can tremble with fear.

  Even the great can fall.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel


  A pink sugar haze glazed the sky, and the sun began its climb over the mountain. Either side of the road was crowded twenty deep with everyone in Terravin waiting to be led in the procession that would hail the beginning of the holy days. A reverent hum ruffled through the crowd, holiness incarnate, as if the gods stood among us. Maybe they did.

  The Festival of Deliverance had begun. In the middle of the road, waiting to lead the crowds, were dozens of women and girls, old and young, hand in hand, dressed in rags.

  Every First Daughter of Terravin.

  Berdi and Pauline were among them.

  It was the same procession my mother had led in Civica—that she would lead there today. The same procession that I had walked in just steps behind my mother because we were the kingdom’s First Daughters, blessed even above the others, holding within us the strongest gift of all.

  The same procession, sometimes immense, sometimes attended only by a handful of the faithful, was taking place in towns, hamlets, and villages all over Morrighan. I scanned the faces of the First Daughters lining up, the expectant, the confident, the curious, the resigned—some supposing themselves to have the gift, others knowing they didn’t, some still hoping it might come, but most taking their places in the middle of the road simply because they knew no other way. It was tradition.

  The priests made a last call for any other First Daughters to join the rest. Gwyneth stood wedged beside me in the crowd. I heard her sigh. I shook my head.

  And then the singing began.

  Morrighan’s song rose and fell in gentle humble notes, a plea to the gods for guidance, a chorus of gratitude for their clemency.

  We all fell in step behind them, dressed in our own rags, our stomachs rumbling because it was a day of fasting, and we made our way to the Sacrista for holy sacraments, thanksgiving, and prayer.

  I thought Rafe and Kaden hadn’t come. Since it was a day of fasting, Berdi hadn’t put out morning fare, and neither of them had stirred from the loft this morning, but just before we reached the Sacrista, I spotted them both in the crowd. So did Gwyneth. Heads were bowed, voices only lifted in song, but she sidled close and whispered, “They’re here,” as if their presence was as miraculous as the gods leading the Remnant from destruction. Maybe it was.

  Suddenly Gwyneth surged ahead until she was in step with little Simone and her parents. Simone’s mother’s hair was a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and her father’s was snowy white, both old to be parents of such a young child, but sometimes heaven brought unexpected gifts. Holding Simone’s hand, the woman nodded acknowledgment over her head to Gwyneth, and they all walked together. I noted that even little Simone, always so impeccably dressed when I had seen her on my errands in town, had managed to find rags to wear. And then, walking just a few paces behind them, I noticed for the first time that Simone’s bouncing strawberry curls were only a shade lighter than Gwyneth’s.

  We reached the Sacrista, and the crowd spread out. The sanctuary was large but not big enough to hold all of Terravin along with the swell of visitors who had come for the high holy days. The elderly and the First Daughters were invited into the sanctuary, but the rest had to find places on its perimeters, the steps, the plaza, the small grotto court, or the graveyard where additional priests would call rites for all to hear. The crowd thinned, everyone finding a place where they’d spend most of the day in prayer. I hung back, hoping, but I had lost sight of Rafe and Kaden. I finally walked to the graveyard, the last place there was anywhere left to kneel.

  I laid my mat down and caught the gaze of the priest on the back steps of the Sacrista. He looked at me, waiting. I didn’t know him. I had never met him, but with all the time Pauline had spent at the Sacrista, maybe she had told him something. Even if she had confessed our truths, I knew priests were bound by the seal of silence. He continued to observe me, and once I knelt, he began calling rites, beginning with the story of devastation.

  I knew the story. I had it memorized. Everyone did. Lest we repeat history, the stories shall be passed from father to son, from mother to daughter. The story was told in every hovel, every cramped cottage, every grand manor, the older passing it on to the younger. Regan liked to tell it to me and often did, though his version was decidedly spicier than Mother’s, with more blood, battles, and wild beasts. Aunt Cloris generously peppered hers with obedience, and Aunt Bernette’s prominently featured the adventure of the deliverance, but it was all essentially the same story and not that different from the one the priest told now.

  The Ancients thought themselves only a step lower than the gods, proud in their power over heaven and earth. They controlled night and day with their fingertips; they flew among the heavens; they whispered and their voices boomed over mountaintops; they were angry and the ground shook with fear.…

  I tried to concentrate on the story, but when he said the word fear, it triggered my own. I saw again the deathly blank stare of a bloody-jointed puppet, the one that had haunted my dreams last night telling me, Don’t utter another word. Even in my dreams, I had disobeyed and called out. Silence wasn’t my strong point.

  I’d always known the Chancellor and Scholar disliked me, but I never thought they’d send someone to murder me. A bounty hunter was required to bring the accused back to face justice for acts of treason. This was no bounty hunter. He could have taken me back alive to face execution. Was it possible that Father was part of their plan, eager to be quietly done with me once and for all? Not your own father, Pauline had said. I wasn’t so sure anymore.

  I shook my head, recalling that night I had slinked into the Scholar’s study. Why had I left the note? I knew it would o
nly fuel his fury, but I hadn’t cared. It didn’t bring me joy yesterday to see it clenched in the hand of my attacker, but the gods save me, I had laughed out loud when I wrote it using the Scholar’s own stationery. He’d have known who did it, even if I hadn’t left a note. I was the only possible thief in the citadelle, but I wanted him to realize it was my plan that he should know.

  I could just imagine the Chancellor’s face when the Scholar showed the note to him. Even if the books were of no value, by leaving the note, I had raised the ante. Besides fleeing their carefully arranged marriage, I had taunted them. Unthinkable. They were the most powerful people in my father’s cabinet, alongside the Viceregent, but I had showed them both I had little regard for their power or position. Leaving the note gave me some power back. I held something over them. Their secrets weren’t so well hidden now, even if this secret was something as small as an old book they had failed to properly enter into the royal archive.

  Last night after Pauline had fallen asleep, I pulled the chair to the wardrobe. Standing on it, I reached over the raised scrolling at the top and felt for the box I had wrapped in cloth. Why I had stored it up there I wasn’t sure. Maybe because the Scholar had hidden it away, I thought I should do the same. These books were not for everyone’s eyes. I took the fragile volumes out and laid them on the table. The lantern cast the already yellowed pages in a warm golden glow.

  Both were thin, small books bound in soft embossed leather that showed signs of damage, burn marks on the edges as though they had been tossed in a fire. One was more heavily charred than the other, and its last page was missing almost in its entirety, appearing to have been hastily ripped away, except for a few letters in the upper corner. The other book was written in a strange scrawling style I had never seen before. Neither was similar to any of the dialects of Morrighan that I knew of, but there were many obscure tongues that had died out. I guessed these strange words were one of the lost languages.

  I had turned the brittle pages carefully, studying them for an hour, but in spite of my facility for languages, I made no progress. Some words seemed to have the same roots as Morrighese words, but even seeing these similar root words wasn’t enough. I needed a more in-depth key, and the only archive in Terravin was at the Sacrista. I thought I might have to become friendly with the clerics here.

  The priest came down the steps, walking among the worshippers, calling out more of the story, his voice strong and ardent.

  They coveted knowledge, and no mystery was hidden from them. They grew strong in their knowledge but weak in their wisdom, craving more and still more power, crushing the defenseless.

  The gods saw their conceit and the emptiness of their hearts, so they sent the angel Aster to pluck a star from the sky and plunge it to earth, the dust and seas rising so high they choked the unrighteous. But a few were spared—not those strong of body or mind, but those of pure and humble heart.

  I thought of Pauline, no one more pure and humble of heart than she, which made her prey to the darkest of hearts. Though it was the holiest of days, I let a mumbled curse escape under my breath for Mikael. An older woman near me smiled, thinking my earnest muttering marked me as devout. I returned her smile and turned my attention back to the priest.

  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 to darkness. The dark of heart they cast deeper into the devastation. But one alone, First Daughter of Harik, a humble and wise girl named Morrighan, found special favor in the sight of the gods. To her they showed the path of safety so she could lead the chosen Remnant to a place where the earth was healed, a place where creation could begin anew.

  Morrighan was faithful to their guidance, and the gods were pleased. She was given in marriage to Aldrid and for evermore Morrighan’s daughters and all generations of First Daughters were blessed with the gift as a promise and remembrance that the gods would never again destroy the earth as long as there were pure hearts to hear them.

  The rites continued through midday until the First Daughters administered the breaking of the fast, just as the young girl Morrighan had done so long ago when she led the hungry to a place of plenty. I spotted Pauline on the shadowed portico steps placing bread in the hands of worshippers and Berdi on another side of the Sacrista doing the same. Another First Daughter served me, and when the last piece of bread was distributed, at the priest’s direction, everyone partook together. By this point, my knees ached and my stomach was rolling with curses, bellowing at the insultingly small morsel of bread. When the priest said the parting words, “So shall it be—” everyone woke up and offered a resounding for evermore.

  The worshippers rose slowly, stiff from a long day of prayer, ready to return to their homes for the traditional and full breaking of the fast. I walked back alone, wondering where Kaden and Rafe had gone.

  I stretched my shoulder, wincing. There was still work to be done at the inn for the evening meal. It was a holy feast, and most observed it at home. Many of the out-of-town worshippers attended the public meal offered at the Sacrista, so only a few guests of the inn would likely dine there. The fare was roasted pigeon, nuts, bush beans, berries, wild greens, all eaten from a community dish, the same as the first simple meal that Morrighan had served the chosen Remnant, but there were other ceremonial details that had to be attended to, especially preparation of the dining room. As much as my stomach rumbled for food, my bruised body yearned for a hot bath, and I wasn’t sure which I craved more. The last small climb to the inn did particular injustice to my ankle.

  Between food and a bath, I thought of Rafe and the garlands he had brought. Bringing me the dropped bundles was one thing, but the effort to find the same garlands to replace the crushed ones still mystified me—especially with the other vile task he’d had to attend to. He was so hard to understand. One moment his eyes were full of warmth, the next ice cold—one minute he was attentive, the next he brushed me off and walked away. What battled inside of him? Replacing the garlands was a gesture beyond kindness. There was unspoken tenderness in his eyes when he held them out to me. Why couldn’t I—

  “You’re still limping.”

  Warmth flooded through me, my joints becoming loose and hot all at once. His voice was soft in my ear, his shoulder casually brushing mine. I didn’t turn to look at him, only felt him keeping step with me, staying close.

  “You’re devout after all,” I said.

  “Today I had need to speak to the gods,” he answered. “The Sacrista was as good a place as any.”

  “You went to offer thanks?”

  He cleared his throat. “No, my anger.”

  “You’re so brave that you would shake your fist at the gods?”

  “It’s said the gods honor a truthful tongue. So do I.”

  I looked at him sideways. “People lie every day. Especially to the gods.”

  He grinned. “Truer words were never said.”

  “And which god did you pray to?”

  “Does it matter? Don’t they all hear?”

  I shrugged. “Capseius is the god of grievances.”

  “Then it must have been he who listened.”

  “I’m sure his ears are burning right now.”

  Rafe laughed, but I stared straight ahead. There was no god of grievances called Capseius. The gods had no names at all, only attributes. The God of Creation, the God of Compassion, the God of Redemption, and the God of Knowledge. Rafe wasn’t devout. He wasn’t even learned in the most fundamental tenets of Morrighan Holy Truths. Did he come from such a backward place they didn’t even have a small Sacrista? Maybe that was why he didn’t want to talk about his roots. Maybe he was ashamed.



  I had spotted Enzo in the crowds just as we were arriving at the Sacrista. I surprised him, moving in close and clamping down on his arm. I made it clear with the tilt of my head that we were taking a little detour. We need
ed to talk. The sweat sprang to his brow instantly. At least he had the good sense to be worried.

  I took him a fair distance away from the crowds, in case he was as much of a sniveling fool as I suspected. When we were out of sight, I slammed him up against the wall of the smithy. He raised his fists for a moment to fight back and then thought better of it, erupting in indignant wails.

  I pushed him back against the wall so hard it shuddered. “Shut up! And listen to every word I say, because the next time we meet like this, one of us will be leaving without a tongue. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

  He nodded his head wildly, babbling yes over and over.

  “Good. I’m glad we understand each other.” I leaned close and spit out each word clear and low. “I was in the loft yesterday morning. I heard you talking to someone, and I heard you give directions to the upper road.” I paused, glaring long and hard. “And then I heard the jingle of coins.”

  His eyes grew wide in horror.

  “I never want another word about Lia to pass from your lips. And if one word should escape, even by chance, I’ll stuff every coin that’s in your greedy little palm down your throat right before I cut out your tongue. Do you understand me, Enzo?”

  He nodded, his mouth firmly sealed shut in case I decided to make good on my threat now.

  “And this will remain just between us, understood?”

  He nodded vigorously again.

  “Good fellow,” I said, and patted his shoulder.

  I left him cowering against the wall. When I was a few yards away, I turned to face him again. “And, Enzo, just so you know,” I added cheerfully, “there’s no place on this continent where you can hide from me if I choose to find you. Wipe your nose now. You’ll be late for the sacraments.”

  He stood there, still frozen. “Now!” I yelled.

  He wiped his nose and ran, circling wide around me. I watched him disappear down the lane.

  Don’t make matters worse.

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