The kiss of deception, p.16
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.16

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  It seemed they already were. If only I had been brave enough to refuse the marriage in the first place, she never would have had to run, she never would have had a knife held to her throat, she never would have had to work at an inn with a slimy lout like Enzo. If I had acted so she didn’t have to, everything would be different.

  Don’t tell her who you are. Don’t make matters worse for Dalbreck or your fellow soldiers.

  If I stayed here much longer, everyone would find out. Sooner or later, I would slip. Sven was smarter than I gave him credit for. He had known things would go wrong, but how could I have known that Lia would turn out to be someone so very different from the person I expected?

  CHAPTER THIRTY

  THE ASSASSIN

  I sensed them long before I saw them.

  It was the settling, my mother had called it, the balance of thought and intent pushing its way into new places, finding a place to settle, displacing the air. It made your fingertips tingle, your hair rise on your neck, it reached into your heart and added a beat, and if you were practiced, it spoke to you. The settling was strongest when those thoughts and intents were foreign, out of place, or urgent, and there was no one more out of place or urgent in Terravin than Griz, Malich, Eben, and Finch.

  I skimmed the heads of the crowd, and Griz’s head easily loomed above the others. He wore his cap pulled low to shadow his face. His scars were a sure way to make small children shriek and grown men pale. When I was certain he’d seen me too, I wove my way through the crowd and slipped down a quiet lane, knowing they’d follow.

  When we were a safe distance away, I spun around. “Are you nicked in the head? What are you doing here?”

  “How long does it take to part a girl from her noggin?” Finch growled.

  “You’re early. And there’ve been complications.”

  “Curse it!” Griz said. “Pop her head tonight, and let’s go.”

  “I’ll do it!” Eben said.

  I shot Eben a menacing glare and looked back at Griz. “I’m still getting information. It might be useful to the Komizar.”

  Griz squinted and raised a suspicious scarred brow. “What kind of information?”

  “Give me one more week. The job will be done, and we’ll meet when and where I told you. Don’t show your faces here again.”

  “A week,” Finch moaned.

  Malich looked around dramatically. “Must be quite agreeable sleeping in a bed, eating hot food out of a real pot, and enjoying who knows what other pleasures. I might like to share in some of—”

  “One week,” I repeated. “But I can always tell the Komizar you were impatient and I had to forgo information that would benefit Venda.”

  Malich glared. “I think it’s more than information you’re getting.”

  “What of it?” I taunted.

  Malich had never made a secret of his contempt for me. The feeling was mutual. He was jealous of my favored status with the Komizar and of my quarters in the fortress tower instead of the council wing, where he lived. I disliked his overly zealous methods. But he was capable in his duties. Deadly, shrewd, and loyal. He had covered my back more than once—for Venda’s sake, if not mine.

  Griz stomped away without any more words to me, cuffing Eben on the back of the head as he left. “Let’s go.”

  Finch grumbled. He was the only one among us who had a wife at home. He had reason to begrudge any further waiting. We had all been gone for the better part of a year. Malich rubbed the finely trimmed hair on his jaw, scrutinizing me before he turned and followed the others.

  One week.

  I had pulled it out of thin air. One week would make no difference. There was no information. No reason to delay. In seven days, I would slit Lia’s throat because Venda meant more to me than she did. Because the Komizar had saved me when no one else would. I couldn’t leave this job undone. She was one of them, and one day she would return to them.

  But for now, I had seven more days.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

  “It wouldn’t hurt to add a little swing to your step when you walk in there,” Gwyneth said, tilting her head toward the kitchen door.

  Pauline immediately voiced her disapproval. “This is a holy meal, Gwyneth.”

  “And a celebration,” Gwyneth countered as she slid six roasted pigeons from the spit onto platters. “How do you think all those First Daughters came to be born from the Remnant? My bet’s that Morrighan knew how to swing her hips.”

  Pauline rolled her eyes and kissed her fingers as penance for Gwyneth’s sacrilege.

  I let out an exasperated sigh. “I am not flirting with anyone.”

  “Haven’t you already?” Gwyneth asked.

  I didn’t answer. Gwyneth had witnessed my frustration as I came in the kitchen door. Once again, Rafe had gone from attentive and warm to distant and cold as soon as we reached the inn. I’d slammed the kitchen door behind me, and I’d said under my breath, “What is wrong with him?” Gwyneth heard my grumbling. I tried to cover by saying I was talking about Enzo, but she would have none of it.

  “What about the blond one? What’s the matter with him?”

  “Nothing’s the matter with him! Why are you—”

  “I actually think he has kinder eyes,” Pauline said. “And his voice is—”

  “Pauline!” I looked at her incredulously. She turned back to arranging piles of bush beans.

  “Oh, stop acting so innocent, Lia. You know you find them both attractive. Who wouldn’t?”

  I sighed. Who wouldn’t indeed. But there was more to how I felt than simple attraction. I spilled sorrel, rose hips, dandelions, and loquats onto the platters surrounding the pigeons in a colorful edible nest, and even though I didn’t respond, Gwyneth and Pauline continued to go back and forth on the merits of Rafe and Kaden and how I should proceed with them.

  “I’m glad my friendships provide so much entertainment for you two.”

  Gwyneth balked. “Friendships? Ha! But a sure way to get the attentions of one is to lavish yours on another.”

  “Enough,” I said.

  Berdi poked her head through the swinging door. “Ready?” she asked.

  Each of us took a platter into the dining room, which Berdi had lit with candles. She had pushed four tables together to create one large one in the center of the room. The guests were already seated around it: Kaden, Rafe, and three others from the inn. The rest had gone to the public meal.

  We set the trays in the center of the table and Pauline and Gwyneth quickly took the remaining open seats, leaving me to sit with Kaden on my left and Rafe adjacent at the corner on my right. He smiled as I sat, and my frustrations melted into something else, something warm and expectant. Berdi took her place at the head of the table and sang the remembrances. The rest of us joined in, but I noticed Rafe only moved his lips. He didn’t know the words. Had he received no instruction at all? It was the commonest of prayers. Every child knew it. I glanced at Pauline, sitting on the other side of Kaden. She had noticed too. But Kaden sang even and clear. He was schooled in the holy songs.

  The songs were finished, and Berdi gave thanks for each item on the platters, all the foods that the Remnant had found in abundance when they were delivered to a new land, and once each food was blessed, we were all invited to eat.

  The room went from reverent whispers to festive chatter. The meal was eaten with fingers only, following tradition, but Berdi did break with custom by bringing out one of her blackberry wines and pouring everyone a small glass. I sipped the dark purple liquid and felt its sweetness warm my chest. I turned to Rafe, who was watching me. I boldly looked back as I slowly nibbled a piece of the silky dark pigeon meat and then leisurely licked my greasy fingers, never taking my eyes from him.

  Rafe swallowed, though he hadn’t eaten anything yet. He scooped up a handful of pine nuts and leaned back to pop them in his mouth. One fell from his hand to the table, and I reached out and put it in my mouth. I blinked slowly, pulling out every trick I ha
d seen Gwyneth use—and then some. He took another sip of wine and pulled on his collar, his chest rising in a deep breath, and then suddenly the icy curtain fell again. He looked away and began a conversation with Berdi.

  My resentment surged. Maybe I didn’t know how to flirt. Or maybe I was just flirting with the wrong person. I looked at Gwyneth across from me. She tilted her head toward Kaden. I turned and engaged him in chatter. We talked about the procession, the sacraments, and the games that would begin tomorrow. I noticed our earnest attention to each other set Rafe on edge. His own conversation with Berdi became stilted, and his fingers tapped on the table. I leaned closer to Kaden and asked which games he would participate in tomorrow.

  “I’m not really sure.” His eyes narrowed, a question lurking behind them. He glanced at my hand resting on the table in front of him, invading his space, and he leaned closer. “Is there one I should try?”

  “I’ve heard a lot of excitement about the log wrestling, but maybe you shouldn’t—” I reached up and laid my hand on his shoulder. “How’s your shoulder since I bandaged it?” Rafe turned his head toward us, halting his conversation with Berdi.

  “My shoulder is fine,” Kaden answered. “You nursed it well.”

  Rafe pushed back his chair. “Thank you, Berdi, for—”

  Fire shot through my temples. I knew what he was doing. One of his quick cold exits. I cut him off, jumping up before he could, and threw my napkin on the table. “I’m not so hungry after all. Excuse me!”

  Kaden tried to get up to follow, but Pauline grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. “You can’t leave yet, Kaden. I wanted to ask you…”

  I didn’t hear the rest of her words. I was already out the door, charging for our cottage, humiliated, my frustrations doubling back in searing fury. I heard Rafe on my heels.

  “Lia! Where are you going?”

  “A bath!” I yelled. “I need a good cold bath!”

  “It was rude of you to leave dinner so—”

  I stopped and spun toward him, my rage so complete it was fortunate I didn’t have my knife strapped to my side. “Go away! Do you understand me? Go! Away! Now!” I whirled back, not waiting to see if he listened or not. My head throbbed. My nails dug into my palms. When I reached the cottage, I threw open the door. I grabbed soap and a towel from the wardrobe, whirled around, and slammed into Rafe.

  I stepped back. “What’s the matter with you? You say one thing to me with your eyes and another with your actions! Every time I think we’ve connected, you stomp off! Every time I want to—” I fought back tears. My throat tightened. “Am I that repulsive to you?”

  He stared at me, not answering, even though I stood there waiting for something, and I was struck with the horror of the truth. His jaw clenched. The silence was long and cruel. I wanted to die. His eyes were cold and accusing. “It’s not as simple as—”

  I couldn’t stand any more of his evasive platitudes. “Go!” I yelled. “Please! Go away! Permanently!” I pushed past him and took pleasure watching him stumble against the bed rail. I charged on toward the creek.

  I heard noises, half scream, half animal growl, foreign even to my ears, though they were coming from my own throat. He still followed. I turned on the trail to face him, spitting out my words.

  “Why in the gods’ names are you tormenting me? What do you care that I left? You started to leave first!”

  His chest heaved, but his words cut icy and even. “I was only leaving because you looked like you were occupied. Are you planning to take Kaden as another lover?”

  He may as well have punched me in the gut, my breath was so completely taken away. I looked at him, my mouth open, still trying to comprehend his words. “Another lover?”

  “I saw you,” he said, his eyes piercing me. “Your tryst in the woods. I think you called him Walther.”

  It took several seconds for me to even understand what he was talking about. When I finally did, a blinding black cloud whirled behind my eyes. “You stupid, stupid oaf!” I screeched. “Walther is my brother!” I shoved him with the flats of both hands, and he reeled back.

  I fled toward the creek. This time there were no footsteps behind me. No demands that I stop. Nothing. I felt ill, as if the greasy pigeon was batting its way back up from my stomach. A lover.

  He’d said it with complete contempt. Had he been spying on me? Did he see what he wanted to see and nothing else? What he had expected of me? I retraced every step of my reunion with Walther, wondering how it could have been misconstrued. It couldn’t, unless you were looking for something unseemly. I had run to Walther. I called his name. I hugged him, kissed his cheeks, laughed and whirled in joy with him, and that was all.

  Except that it was a secretive meeting, deep in the woods.

  When I reached the creek, I planted myself on a boulder and rubbed my ankle. It throbbed from my careless stomping.

  What had I done? My throat twisted into a painful knot. Rafe only saw me as a fickle, dallying maid who played with a multitude of inn guests. I closed my eyes and swallowed, trying to force the ache away.

  I would own up to my mistake, and I had made a perfectly glorious one. I had presumed too much. Rafe was a guest of the inn. I was a maid who worked there. And that was all. I thought of the terrible scene in the dining room. My shameless flirting with Kaden, and everything I had said to Rafe. Heat flushed my face. How could I have made such a mistake?

  I slid from the rock to the ground, hugging my knees and staring at the creek. I had no interest in cold or hot baths anymore. I only wanted to crawl into a bed where I could sleep forever and pretend today had never happened. I thought about getting up, walking to the cottage, and melting into the mattress, but instead my eyes stayed locked on the creek as I thought of Rafe, his face, his eyes, his warmth, his disdain, his vile presumptions.

  I had thought he was different. Everything about him seemed different, every way that he made me feel. I’d thought we had some sort of special connection. I was obviously so very wrong.

  The sparkling color of the creek dimmed to shadowy gray as daylight receded. I knew it was time to go before Pauline worried about where I was and came looking for me, but my legs were too tired to carry me. I heard a noise, a soft shuffling. I turned my head toward the path, wondering if Pauline had already hunted me down, but it wasn’t her. It was Rafe.

  I closed my eyes and took a long pained breath. Please leave. I couldn’t deal with him anymore. I opened my eyes. He was still there, a bottle in one hand, a small basket in the other. He stood tall and still and so beautifully and irritatingly perfect. I looked at him blankly, betraying no emotion. Leave.

  He took a step closer. I shook my head, and he stopped. “You were right, Lia,” he said quietly.

  I remained silent.

  “When we first met, you called me an ill-mannered boor.” He shifted from one foot to the other, pausing to look at the ground, an awkward worried expression crossing his face. He looked back up. “I’m everything you could ever call me, and more. Including stupid oaf. Maybe especially that.” He walked closer.

  I shook my head again, wanting him to stop. He didn’t. I got to my feet, grimacing as I put weight on my ankle. “Rafe,” I said quietly, “just go away. It’s all a big mistake—”

  “Please. Let me get this out while I still have the courage to say it.” The troubled crease deepened between his brows. “My life’s complicated, Lia. There are so many things I can’t explain to you. Things you wouldn’t even want to know. But there’s one thing you could never call me.” He set the bottle and basket down on a patch of grass. “The one thing you can never call me is repulsed by you.”

  I swallowed. He closed what gap was left between us, and I had to lift my chin to see him. He looked down at me. “Because ever since that first day I met you, I’ve gone to sleep every single night thinking about you, and every morning when I wake, my first thoughts are of you.” He stepped impossibly closer and lifted his hands, cupping my face, his
touch so gentle it was barely there. “When I’m not with you, I wonder where you are. I wonder what you’re doing. I think about how much I want to touch you. I want to feel your skin, your hair, run every dark strand through my fingers. I want to hold you, your hands, your chin.” His face drew nearer, and I felt his breath on my skin. “I want to pull you close and never let you go,” he whispered.

  We stood there, every second an eternity, and slowly our lips met, warm, gentle, his mouth soft against mine, his breaths becoming mine, and then just as slowly, the perfect moment paused, and our lips parted again.

  He pulled back far enough to look at me, his hands sliding from my face to my hair, his fingers tangling in it. My own hands reached up, slipping behind his head. I pulled him to me, our lips scarcely touching, taking the tingle and warmth of each other in, and then our mouths pressed together again.

  “Lia?”

  We heard Pauline’s distant worried call and moved away from each other. I wiped my lips, adjusting my shirt, and saw her coming around the path. Rafe and I stood like awkward wooden soldiers. Pauline stopped short when she saw us. “I’m sorry. It was getting dark, and when I didn’t find you in the cottage—”

  “We were just walking back,” Rafe answered. We looked at each other, and he sent me a message with his eyes. It only lasted a brief second, but it was a full, knowing look that said everything I had felt and imagined about us was true.

  He stooped and grabbed the basket and bottle, handing them to me. “I thought your appetite might return.”

  I nodded. Yes, it seemed it already had.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

  I leaned forward in the tub as Pauline scrubbed my back, savoring the slippery luxury of the bath oils on my skin and the hot water soothing my bruised muscles. Pauline dropped the sponge in the water in front of me, splashing my face.

  “Come back to earth, Lia,” she called.

  “It’s not every day one has a first kiss,” I said.

  “May I remind you that it wasn’t your first kiss?”

 

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