The kiss of deception, p.19
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.19

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  I eyed him uncertainly, biting the corner of my lip. A true man of the gods?

  He slid his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the door, telling me if I wanted any other books, all I had to do was ask. When I was halfway across the vestibule, he whispered after me, “I wouldn’t speak to the other priests of this matter. They might not all agree where loyalties should lie. Understood?”

  “Clearly.”

  * * *

  The bell of the Sacrista rang again, this time heralding the noon hour. My stomach rumbled. I stood at the side of the sanctuary, shaded in a dark nook of the northern portico as I looked through the book.

  Kencha tor ena shiamay? What is your name?

  Bedage nict. Come out.

  Sevende. Hurry.

  Adwa bas. Sit down.

  Mi nay bogeve. Do not move.

  It sounded like a soldier’s rudimentary command book for managing prisoners, but I could study it more later. Maybe it would help me understand my own small book from Venda. I closed it, hiding it away in my clothing, and looked out over the heads of the festival-goers. I spotted Pauline’s honey hair shimmering beneath a crown of pink flowers. I was about to call out to her when I felt a whisper at my neck.

  “At last.”

  Warm shivers prickled my skin. Rafe’s chest pressed close to my back, and his finger traveled along my shoulder and down my arm. “I thought we’d never get a moment alone.”

  His lips brushed my jaw. I closed my eyes, and a shudder sprinted through me. “We’re hardly alone,” I said. “Can’t you see an entire town milling in front of you?”

  His hand circled my waist, his thumb stroking my side. “I can’t see anything but this…” He kissed my shoulder, his lips traveling over my skin until they reached my ear. “And this … and this.”

  I turned around, and my mouth met his. He smelled of soap and fresh cotton. “Someone might see us,” I said, breathless between kisses.

  “So?”

  I didn’t want to care, but I gently nudged away, mindful that it was broad daylight and the shadow of a nook afforded very little privacy.

  A reluctant smile lifted a corner of his mouth. “Our timing always seems to be off. A moment alone but with a whole town as an audience.”

  “Tonight there’ll be food and dancing and plenty of shadows to get lost in. We won’t be missed.”

  His expression became solemn as his hands tightened on my waist. “Lia, I—” He cut off his own words.

  I looked at him, confused. I’d thought he’d be glad about the possibility of slipping away. “What is it?”

  His smile returned, and he nodded. “Tonight.”

  * * *

  We caught up with Pauline, and soon enough Kaden found us too. There were no more bouts in the mud, but from fish catching to fire building to ax throwing, the competition was evident. Pauline rolled her eyes at each event as if to say, Here we go again. I shrugged in return. I was used to my brothers’ competitive spirit and enjoyed a good contest myself, but Rafe and Kaden seemed to take it to a new level. Finally their stomachs overruled the games, and they both went off in search of the smoked venison that teased through the air. For now, Pauline and I were content with our pastries and continued to stroll the grounds. We came to the knife-throwing field, and I handed Pauline my sugared orange brioche, which she happily took. Her appetite had returned.

  “I want to give this game a try,” I told her as I headed for the entry gate.

  There was no wait, and I lined up with three other contestants. I was the only female. Positioned fifteen feet away were large round slices of painted logs—the nonmoving kind of targets that I liked. Five knives lay on tables next to each of us. I looked them over and lifted them, judging their weight. They were all heavier than my own knife and certainly not as balanced. The game master explained that we would all throw at the same time at his command, until all five knives were thrown.

  “Lift your weapons. Ready…”

  He’s watching.

  The words hit me like cold water. I scanned the festival-goers crowding the rope boundary. I was being watched. I didn’t know by whom, but I knew. I was being watched, not by the hundreds who surrounded the event but by one.

  “Throw!”

  I hesitated and then threw. My knife hit the target handle first and bounced off, falling to the ground. All the other contestants’ knives stuck in the wood circles, one in the outer bark, one in the outer white ring, one in the blue ring, none in the center red. We hardly had time to grab the next knife before the game master called again, “Throw!”

  Mine struck with a loud thunk, slicing into the white outer circle and staying put. Better, but these knives were clunky and not terribly sharp.

  He’s watching. The words crawled up my neck.

  “Throw!”

  My knife flew past the target entirely, lodging in the dirt beyond. My frustration grew. I couldn’t use distractions as an excuse. Walther had told me that so many times. That was the point of practice, to block out distractions. In the real world when a knife was needed, distractions didn’t politely wait for you to throw—they sought to disarm you.

  Watching … watching.

  I held the tip tight, fixed my shoulder, and let my arm do the work.

  “Throw!”

  This time I hit the line between white and blue. I took a deep breath. There was only one knife left. I looked out at the crowds again. Watching. I felt the derision, the mocking gaze, a smirk at my less-than-impressive knife-throwing skills—but I couldn’t see a face, not the face.

  Watch, then, I thought, my ire rising.

  I lifted my hem.

  “Throw!”

  My knife sliced through the air so fast and clean it was hardly seen. It hit red, dead center. Out of twenty throws by four contestants, mine was the only one to hit red. The game master took a second look, confused, and then disqualified me. It was worth it. I scanned the mass of onlookers lining the ropes and caught a glimpse of a retreating back being swallowed by the crowd. The nameless soldier? Or someone else?

  It was a lucky throw. I knew that, but my watcher didn’t.

  I walked over to the target, pulled my gem-studded dagger from the center, and returned it to its sheath on my thigh. I would practice as I’d promised Walther. There would be no more throws left to luck.

  The crowned and beaten,

  The tongue and sword,

  Together they will attack,

  Like blinding stars thrown from the heavens.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER THIRTY-FIVE

  KADEN

  I didn’t trust him. He was more than just the farmhand he claimed to be. His moves on that log were far too practiced. But practiced in what? And that hellish beast he rode—that wasn’t the average docile nag from a farm. He was also strangely deft at disposing of a body, as if he’d done it before, not the least bit hesitant as a rural bumpkin might be, unless his rural activities ran on the darker side. He could be a farmhand, but he was something else too.

  I scrubbed my chest with soap. His attentions toward Lia were just as bad. I’d heard her screaming at him to go away last night. The sudden singing of Berdi and the others drowned out what else was said, but I’d heard enough to know she wanted him to leave her alone. I should have followed, but Pauline was so intent on me staying. It was the first time I had seen her without her mourning scarf in weeks. She looked so fragile. I couldn’t leave, nor would she let me.

  I rinsed my hair in the creek. It was my second bath of the day, but after catching fish, swinging axes, and racing to start a fire with two sticks, the so-called games had left me in need of more bathing—especially if I intended to dance with Lia tonight—and I did intend to dance with her. I’d make sure of that.

  The way she had looked at me last night, touched my shoulder, I wished things could have been different for us. Maybe at least for one night, they could be.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX

  I leaned agai
nst the porch post. We were waiting for Berdi to join us for the walk to the plaza and the night’s festivities. She had gone to wash up and change. It had been a long day, and I was still pondering the knife-throwing event and the strange feeling of being watched when certainly a hundred people were watching me. What was one more?

  “Pauline,” I asked hesitantly, “do you ever know things? Just know them?”

  She was silent for a long while, as if she hadn’t heard me, but then finally looked up. “You saw, didn’t you? That day we passed the graveyard, you saw that Mikael was dead.”

  I pushed away from the post. “What? No, I—”

  “I’ve thought about it many times since then. That look on your face that day. Your offer to stop. You saw him dead.”

  I shook my head vigorously. “No. It’s not like that.” I sat down beside her. “I’m not a Siarrah. I don’t see like my mother did. I just sensed something, something vague, but strong too, a feeling. That day I just sensed something was wrong.”

  She weighed this and shrugged. “Then maybe it’s not the gift. Sometimes I have a strong sense about things. In fact, I had a feeling something was wrong with Mikael too. A sense that he wasn’t coming. It turned over and over inside me, but I refused to believe it. Maybe that was why I was even more eager for him to walk through the tavern door. I needed to be proved wrong.”

  “Then you don’t think it’s the gift.”

  “Your mother’s gift came in visions.” She looked down apologetically. “At least it used to.”

  My mother stopped seeing visions after I was born. On occasion the vicious would imply I had stolen the gift from her while in her womb, which of course turned out to be laughable. Aunt Bernette said it wasn’t me at all, that her gift slowly diminished after she arrived at the citadelle from her native land. Others claimed she’d never had it at all, but years ago, when I was very young, I had witnessed things. I had watched her gray eyes lose their focus, her concentration spike. Once she had ushered us all out of harm’s way before a spooked horse trampled the path where we had just been standing. Another time she led us outside before the ground shook and stones crashed down, and often she shooed us away before my father would burst through in one of his foul moods.

  She always brushed it off, claiming she had heard the horse or felt the ground move before we did, but back then, I was certain it was the gift. I had seen her face. She saw what would happen before it did, or saw it happen from afar, like the day she took to her room in grief on the day her father died, though she didn’t receive the news until two weeks later, when a messenger finally arrived. But in these latter years, there had been nothing.

  “Even if it’s not a vision,” Pauline said, “it could still be a gift. There could be other kinds of knowing.”

  A chill clutched my spine. “What did you say?”

  She repeated her words, almost the same ones the priest had used that morning.

  She must have seen the distress on my face, because she laughed. “Lia, don’t worry! I’m the one with the gift of seeing! Not you! In fact, I’m having a vision now!” She bounced to her feet and held her hands to her head in mock concentration. “I see a woman. A beautiful old woman in a new dress. Her hands are on her hips. Her lips are pursed. She’s impatient. She’s—”

  I rolled my eyes. “She’s standing behind me, isn’t she?”

  “Yes, I am,” Berdi said.

  I spun and saw her standing in the tavern doorway just as described.

  Pauline squealed with delight.

  “Old?” Berdi said.

  “Venerable,” Pauline corrected and kissed her cheek.

  “You two ready?”

  Oh, I was ready. I had been waiting for this night all week.

  * * *

  Crickets chirped, welcoming the shadows. The sky over the bay was draped with thin streamers of pink and violet while the rest deepened to cobalt. A bronzed sickle moon held a pinprick star. Terravin painted a magical landscape.

  The air was still and warm, holding the whole town suspended. Safe. When we reached the main road, a crisscross of paper lanterns twinkled overhead. And then, as if the landscape alone weren’t enough, the song.

  The prayer was sung as I’d never heard it sung before. A remembrance here. Another there. Voices separate, combining, gathering, giving, a melody coming together. It was sung at different paces, different words rising, falling, streaming like a choir washed together in a cresting wave, aching and true.

  “Lia, you’re crying,” Pauline whispered.

  Was I? I reached up and felt my cheeks, wet with tears. This was not crying. This was something else. As we got closer to town, Berdi’s voice, with the most beautiful timbre of all, moved from song to greetings, the remembrances melting into the now.

  The smithy, the cooper, the fishermen, this craftsperson, that dressmaker, the clerks of the mercantile, the soap maker who reminded Berdi she had some new scents she must try, they all offered their greetings. Soon Berdi was pulled away.

  Pauline and I watched the musicians setting up, placing three chairs in a half circle. They set their instruments—a zitarae, fiola, and goblet drum—on the chairs and went to find some food and drink before their music began. While Pauline wandered off to sample the pickled eggs, I walked closer to examine the zitarae. It was made of deep-red cherrywood inlaid with thin seams of white oak and had worn marks where hands had rested through hundreds of songs.

  I reached down and plucked one string. A dull pang rang through me. On rare occasions, my mother and her sisters would play their zitaraes, the three of them creating haunting music, my mother’s voice wrenching and wordless like an angel watching creation. When they played, a chill ran through the citadelle and everything stopped. Even my father. He’d watch and listen from a distance, hidden away on the upper gallery. It was the music of her homeland, and it always made me wonder what sacrifices she had made to come to Morrighan to be its queen. Her sisters had followed two years later to be with her, but who else had she left behind? Maybe as he listened and watched, that was what my father was wondering too.

  More people arrived for the evening festivities, and the chatter and laughter grew to a soothing buzz. The celebration had begun, and the musicians took their seats, filling the air with welcoming tunes, but something was still missing.

  I tracked down Pauline. “Have you seen him?” I asked.

  “Don’t worry. He’ll be here.” She tried to pull me away to watch the lighting of the floating candles in the plaza fountain, but I told her I’d catch up with her later.

  I stood in the shadows outside the apothecary and watched the hands of the zitarae player press and pluck, a mesmerizing dance in itself. I wished my mother had taught me how to use the instrument. I was about to walk closer when I felt a hand on my waist. He was here. Heat rushed through me, but when I turned, it wasn’t Rafe.

  I sucked in a surprised breath. “Kaden.”

  “I didn’t mean to startle you.” His eyes traveled over me. “You look radiant tonight.”

  I glanced down, embarrassed, guilt pinching me for being too generous with my attentions last night. “Thank you.”

  He motioned toward the street where people were dancing. “The music’s playing,” he said.

  “Yes. It just started.”

  His damp blond locks were combed back, and the scent of soap was still fresh on his skin. He nodded again toward the music, awkwardly boyish, though there was nothing else boyish about him. “Can we dance?” he asked.

  I hesitated, wishing they were playing a faster jig. I didn’t want to lead him on, but I couldn’t refuse a simple dance either. “Yes, of course,” I answered.

  He took my hand and guided me to the space set aside in front of the musicians for dancing. One of his arms slid behind my back, and the other held my hand out to the side. I made sure our conversation was full, recounting the day’s games so we could maintain some distance, but when talk lulled only briefly, he tugged me closer.
His touch was gentle but firm, his skin warm against mine.

  “You’ve been kind to me, Lia,” he said. “I—” He paused for a long while, his lips slightly parted. He cleared his throat. “I’ve enjoyed my time here with you.”

  His tone had turned strangely solemn, and I saw the same gravity in his eyes. I looked at him, confused at this sudden change in his demeanor.

  “I’ve done little enough for you, Kaden, but you saved my life.”

  He shook his head. “You managed to break free. I’m sure you’d have been just as capable with your knife.”

  “Maybe,” I said. “But maybe not.”

  “We’ll never know what might have been.” His fingers tightened on mine. “But we can’t dwell on the maybes.”

  “No … I suppose we can’t.”

  “We have to move on.”

  Every word from him was weighted, as if he was thinking one thing but saying another. The unrest that had always lurked in his eyes doubled.

  “You sound like you’re leaving,” I said.

  “Soon. I have to return to my duties at home.”

  “You never told me where home is.”

  Lines deepened around his eyes. “Lia,” he said hoarsely. The music crawled, my heart thumped faster, and his hand slid lower on my back. Tenderness replaced the unrest, and his face dipped close to mine. “I wish—”

  A hand came down on his shoulder, surprising us both. Rafe’s hand.

  “Don’t be piggish, man,” Rafe said cheerfully, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Give the other fellows a chance.”

  Astonishment paraded across Kaden’s face as if Rafe had dropped from the sky. In an instant, his surprise was replaced with a scowl. He looked from Rafe to me, and I shrugged to show it was only polite to dance with everyone. He nodded and stepped aside.

  Rafe slid his arm around me and explained he was late because the clothes he had laid out at the bathhouse had somehow gotten up and walked off by themselves. He’d finally had to make a mad dash to the barn loft with only a towel to cover himself. He eventually found his clothes tossed in Otto’s stall. I suppressed a giggle, imagining him running to the loft draped only in a towel.

 
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