The kiss of deception, p.18
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.18

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  He turned toward us, gave me a nod, and with a captivating but smug grin, lifted his palms to Kaden and shrugged like it was short, easy work. The mob cheered. Rafe started to climb back down the ladder, but the game master stopped him and called the next contestant. Apparently Rafe’s crowd-pleasing antics had won him another round on the log. He shrugged and waited for the next contestant to approach the ladder.

  There was a hush as he came forward. I recognized him. He was the farrier’s son, sixteen at the most, but a stout boy, easily having a hundred pounds on Rafe, if not more. Would the ladder hold him?

  I remembered he was a boy of few words but focused on his tasks when he’d come with his father to replace a shoe on Dieci. He looked just as focused now as he climbed the ladder. A puzzled frown crossed Rafe’s face. This new opponent was two heads shorter than he was. The boy stepped out on the log and came to meet Rafe, his steps slow and cautious, but his balance as solid as lead.

  Rafe reached out and pushed his shoulders, probably thinking that would be the end of it. The boy didn’t budge. He seemed to become one with the wood, a stump growing from a log. Rafe grabbed his arms, and the boy wrestled mildly with him, but his strength was in his low center of gravity, and he leaned neither one way nor the other. Rafe came closer, pushing, wrangling, twisting, but stumps don’t twist easily. I could see the sweat glistening on Rafe’s chest. He finally let go, stepped back, shook his head like he was done, then lunged, grabbing the boy’s arms and yanking him forward. The stump broke loose from his position, and Rafe fell back, grabbing the log to keep from going down. The boy toppled forward, bouncing on his stomach, and his arms scrabbled for a hold as he slid to the side. Rafe jumped back to his feet and leaned down to the boy, who was still desperately trying to secure his grip.

  “Safe travels, my friend,” Rafe said, smiling as he gently nudged the boy’s shoulder. That was all it took. The boy lost his hold and fell like a rock into the mud. This time the spray flew higher, spattering Rafe’s chest. He rubbed the drops of mud in with his sweat and grinned. The crowd went wild, and a few girls standing near me whispered among themselves. I thought it was time for him to put his shirt back on.

  “Kaden!” the game master called.

  Rafe had already wrestled up there long enough, but I knew he wouldn’t back down now. Kaden smiled and climbed up with his crisp white shirt still on.

  It was clear as soon as Kaden stepped out on the log that this match would be different from the others. The tension between the two heightened the awareness of the crowd and quieted them down.

  Kaden and Rafe moved toward each other slowly, both crouched for balance, arms poised at their sides. Then, with lightning speed, Kaden stepped forward and swung his leg. Rafe jumped straight in the air, clearing Kaden’s leg and landing with perfect grace back on the log. He lunged, grabbing Kaden’s arms, and they both teetered. I could hardly watch as they battled to regain their footing, and then using each other as counterweight, they swung around, ending up on opposite sides from where they’d started. Riotous cheers broke the breathless silence.

  Neither Rafe nor Kaden seemed to hear the frenzy around them. Rafe sprang forward again, but Kaden skillfully retreated several paces so that Rafe lost his momentum and stumbled. Then Kaden advanced, plowing into him. Rafe staggered back, his feet scrambling for purchase, and the battle between them raged on, each struggling to keep his own footing while working to unbalance the other. I wasn’t sure how much more I could watch. When their wrestling brought their faces within inches of each other, I saw their lips moving. I couldn’t hear what was said, but Rafe glared and a sneer twisted Kaden’s lips.

  With a surge of energy and a shout that resembled a battle cry, Kaden pushed forward, wrenching Rafe to one side. Rafe fell but managed to grab the log. He hung precariously by his hands. All Kaden had to do was nudge his fingers loose. Instead he stood over him and said loudly, “Concede, my friend?”

  “When I’m in hell,” Rafe grunted, the strain of hanging muffling his words. Kaden looked from Rafe to me. I’m not sure what he saw on my face, but he turned back to Rafe, staring at him for a few long seconds, and then stepped back, giving Rafe plenty of room. “Swing up. Let’s end this properly. I want to see your face in the mud, not just your breeches.”

  Even from where I stood, I could see sweat trickling down Rafe’s face. Why didn’t he just drop? If he landed right, he’d only be up to his knees in mud. I watched him take a deep breath and swing his legs up, hooking one over the log. He struggled to the top. Kaden stayed back, giving Rafe time to regain his footing.

  How long could this go on? The crowd was cheering, shouting, applauding, and the gods knew what else—it all melted into a distant roar for me. Rafe’s skin glistened. He had been in the blazing sun through three opponents now. He wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand, and they advanced toward each other again. Kaden gained the upper hand one moment, and Rafe, the next. Finally, they both seemed to lean against each other, catching their breath.

  “Concede?” Kaden asked again.

  “In hell,” Rafe repeated.

  They pushed apart, but as Rafe glanced back toward me, Kaden made his move, a last burst, his leg swinging wide, knocking Rafe clear of the log and into the air. Kaden landed on his stomach, clinging to the log as Rafe emerged from the mud below him. Rafe wiped the muck from his face and looked up.

  “Concede?” Kaden asked.

  Rafe saluted, graciously giving Kaden his due, but then smiled. “In hell.”

  The crowd roared with laughter, and I took a deep breath, relieved that it was finally over.

  At least I hoped it was over.

  I wove my way through the crowd to meet them as they left the arena. Though Kaden had officially won the bout, Rafe took great pleasure in pointing out the mud sprayed across Kaden’s shirt. “I guess you should have taken it off after all,” he said.

  “So I should have,” Kaden answered. “But I hadn’t expected such a spectacular fall from you.”

  They both left to go back to the inn to bathe and change, promising to return soon. As I watched them walk off together, I hoped that would be the end of the dirty games.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR

  I meandered down the main avenue alone, taking in the other events, comparing it all to the way it was done in Civica. Some things were unique to Terravin, like catching live fish bare-handed in the plaza fountain, but all the games had their roots in the survival of the chosen Remnant. Though Morrighan had eventually led them to a new land of abundance, the trek wasn’t easy. Many died, and only the most resourceful made it through, so the games were rooted in those survival skills—like catching fish when opportunity availed but a hook and line didn’t.

  I came upon a large roped-off field with a variety of obstacles set within, mostly wooden barrels and a wagon or two. It commemorated Morrighan leading the Remnant through a blind pass when they had to rely on their faith in her gift. Contestants were blindfolded and spun, then had to make their way from one end of the field to the other. It had been one of my favorite events back in Civica from the time I was very young. I had always beaten my brothers, to the delight of everyone watching—except perhaps my mother. I was making my way toward the contestant line, when someone stepped into my path, and I slammed into a chest.

  “Well, if it isn’t the haughty smart-mouthed tavern girl.”

  I stumbled back several steps, stunned, and looked up. It was the soldier I had chastised weeks ago. It appeared the sting of my words was still fresh. He swaggered closer, prepared to deliver my comeuppance. My disgust was renewed. A soldier in my father’s own army. For the first time since leaving Civica, I wanted to reveal who I was. Reveal it loudly and boldly and watch him pale. Use my position to put him in his place once and for all—but I no longer had that position. Nor was I willing to sacrifice my new life for the likes of him.

  He stepped closer. “If you seek to intimidate me,” I said, holding my ground, “I’ll
warn you right now that belly-crawling vermin don’t frighten me.”

  “You nasty little—”

  His hand shot up to strike me, but I was faster. He stopped, staring at the knife already drawn in my hand. “If you were so foolish as to lay one of your lecherous fingers on me, I fear we’d both regret it. It would ruin the festivities for everyone here, because I’d slice away at the nearest thing to me, no matter how small.” I looked directly at his crotch, then turned the knife in my hands as if I was inspecting it. “Our encounter could turn into an ugly affair.”

  His face seethed with fury. It only empowered me more. “But don’t fear,” I said, lifting my hem and returning my knife to the sheath secured at my thigh. “I’m sure our paths will cross again, and our differences will be settled once and for all. Walk carefully, because next time it will be I who will surprise you.”

  My words were reckless and impulsive, driven by loathing, and fanned by the safety of hundreds of people around us. But reckless or not, it felt as right and fitting as a snug boot delivered to his backside.

  Surprisingly, his rage curled to a smile. “Till we meet again, then.” He nodded a slow, deliberate good-bye and brushed past me.

  I watched him walk away, fingering the comfort of my dagger beneath my shift. Even if my arms were pinned to my sides, I could reach it now, and on my thigh it was more easily concealed, at least in a thin summer dress. He disappeared into the crowds. I could only hope he’d be called up soon to return to his regiment, and if the gods be just, kicked in the head by a horse. I didn’t know his name, but I’d talk to Walther about him. Maybe he could do something about a snake in his ranks.

  In spite of his smile, which I knew foretold an unpleasant outcome should we meet again, I was invigorated. Some things needed to be said. I smiled at my own boldness and went to try my luck with a blindfold and tamer obstacles.

  * * *

  The bell of the Sacrista rang once, noting the half hour. Rafe and Kaden would be back shortly, but there was something I still needed to attend to, and today might afford the best opportunity.

  I walked up the front steps of the sanctuary. Children chased each other around the stone columns, and mothers sought shade in the portico, but after yesterday’s long day of prayers, few were inside, just as I had hoped. I went through the motions, sitting on a rear bench until my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I could assess who was present. An elderly man sat in the front row. Two elderly women sat shoulder to shoulder in the middle, and kneeling on the chancel, a cantor chanted the graces of the gods. That was it. Even the priests seemed to be outside partaking in the festivities.

  I made the necessary signs of remembrance, stepped quietly to the back, and slipped up the dark stairwell. All Sacristas had archives shelving the texts of Morrighan and the other kingdoms. The priests were scholars as much as servants to the gods. But foreign texts, by rule of the kingdom, were not to be shared with the citizenry unless approved first by the Scholars of Civica, who verified the texts’ authenticity and assessed their value. The Royal Scholar oversaw them all.

  The stairs were narrow and steep. My hand slid along the stone wall as I slowly ascended. I listened for noises. I carefully emerged into a long vestibule, and the silence assured me that the Sacrista was largely unattended. There were several draped doorways, their heavy fabric pulled aside to reveal empty chambers, but at the end of the hallway was a wide double door.

  There. I walked directly to it.

  The room was large and amply stocked. The collection wasn’t as extensive as the Scholar’s in Civica, but it was sizable enough to take some time to search. There were no carpets or rich velvet drapes here to muffle sound, so I had to move stools quietly to reach the higher shelves. I’d been through nearly all of them, finding nothing that would prove useful, when at last, I pulled a tiny volume from an upper shelf. The whole book wasn’t much bigger than a man’s palm. Vendan Phrases and Usage. Perhaps it was a priest’s guide to delivering death blessings to the barbarians?

  I slid the other books together to hide the small gap the book had left, and looked through a few pages. It might prove useful to help me decipher the Vendan book I stole from the Scholar, but I’d have to explore it further somewhere else. I hiked up my shift and slid it into my underclothing, a safe, if uncomfortable, place to hide it until I was at least out of the Sacrista. I lowered my shift and smoothed it back in place.

  “I would have given it to you, Arabella. There was no need to steal it.”

  I froze, my back to my unexpected company, and contemplated my next move. Still atop the stool, I turned slowly to see a priest standing in the doorway, the one who had watched me yesterday.

  “I must be losing my touch,” I said. “I used to be able to slip into a room, pilfer what I wanted, and steal away again with no one the wiser.”

  He nodded. “When we don’t use our gifts, they leave us.”

  The word gifts settled on me heavily, no doubt the way he intended it to. I lifted my chin. “Some gifts were never mine to lose.”

  “Then you’re called to use the ones that you do possess.”

  “You know me?”

  He smiled. “I could never forget you. I was a young priest, one of the twelve who delivered the sacraments of your dedication. You wailed like a stuck pig.”

  “Maybe even as an infant I knew where that dedication would lead me.”

  “There’s no question in my mind. You knew.”

  I looked at him. His black hair was tinged with gray at the temples, but he was still a young man by ancient priest standards, vigorous and engaged. He wore the required black vestments and long white cape, but he hardly seemed like a priest at all. He invited me to step down to continue our conversation and motioned to two chairs beneath a round leaded-glass window.

  We sat, and the blue and rose light streaming through the glass spilled over our shoulders. “Which volume did you take?” he asked.

  “Close your eyes.” He did, and I hiked my shift up to retrieve the book. “This one,” I said, holding it out to him.

  He opened his eyes. “Vendan?”

  “I’m curious about the language. Do you know it?”

  He shook his head. “Only a few words. I’ve never encountered a barbarian, but sometimes soldiers bring back verbal souvenirs. Words not meant to be repeated in Sacristas.” He leaned forward to take the book from me and leafed through it. “Hm. I missed this one. It looks like it only provides a few common phrases—not exactly a Vendan primer.”

  “Do any of the priests here know the language?”

  He shook his head. I wasn’t surprised. The barbarian language was as faraway and foreign to Morrighan as the moon, and not held in nearly as high regard. Barbarians were rarely captured, and when they were, they didn’t speak. Regan’s squad had once accompanied a prisoner back to an outpost, and Regan said the man never spoke a single word the whole way. He was killed when he tried to escape and finally uttered some gibberish as he lay dying. The words had stuck with Regan even though he didn’t know what they meant—Kevgor ena te deos paviam. After so long a silence, Regan said it was gripping to hear him say it over and over again until his final breath ran out. The words chilled him with their sorrow.

  The priest handed the book back to me. “Why would you need to know the language of a distant land?”

  I looked at the book in my lap and ran my fingers over the soiled leather cover. I want what you stole. “Let’s just call it a multitude of curiosities.”

  “Do you know of trouble?”

  “Me? I know nothing. As I’m sure you’re well aware from your talks with Pauline, I’m a fugitive now. I have no connections to the crown anymore.”

  “There are many kinds of knowing.”

  That again. I shook my head. “I’m not—”

  “Trust your gifts, Arabella, whatever they might be. Sometimes a gift requires great sacrifice, but we can no more turn our backs on it than will our hearts not to beat.”


  I hardened my expression to stone. I wouldn’t be pushed.

  He leaned back in his chair, loosely crossing one leg over the other—not a pious priestly pose. “Did you know the Guard is marching on the upper highway?” he asked. “Two thousand troops being moved to the southern border.”

  “Today?” I said. “During the high holy days?”

  He nodded. “Today.”

  I looked away and traced the scrolled line in the arm of the chair with my finger. This wasn’t a simple rotation of troops. That many soldiers weren’t deployed, especially during the holy days, unless concerns were real. I recalled what Walther had said. Marauders have been creating all manner of bedlam. But he’d also said, We’ll keep them out. We always do.

  Walther had been confident. Surely the moving of troops was only a preemptive strategy. More chest-beating, as Walther would call it. The numbers and timing were unusual, but with Father trying to save face with Dalbreck, he might be shaking his power in their faces like a fist. Two thousand troops was a formidable fist.

  I stood. “So the book is mine to take?”

  He smiled. “Yes.”

  That was it? Just yes? He was far too cooperative. Nothing came that easy. I raised a brow. “And where do we stand?”

  A small chuckle escaped from his lips. He stood so we were eye to eye. “If you mean will I report your presence, the answer is no.”

  “Why? It could be construed as treason.”

  “What Pauline told me was in holy confidence, and you’ve admitted nothing, only that you came to borrow a book. And I haven’t seen Princess Arabella since she was a wailing baby. You’ve changed a bit since then, except for the wailing part, I’m told. No one would expect me to recognize you.”

  I smiled, still trying to figure him out. “Why?” I asked again.

  He grinned and raised one brow. “Seventeen years ago, I held a squalling infant girl in my hands. I lifted her up to the gods, praying for her protection and promising mine. I’m not a fool. I keep my promises to the gods, not men.”

 

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