The kiss of deception, p.2
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.2

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  “I’m not a soldier in Father’s army.”

  My mother drew closer, brushing my cheek, and whispered, “Yes, my dear. You are.”

  A chill danced down my spine.

  She gave me a last squeeze and stepped back. “It’s time. I’ll go retrieve the wedding cloak from the vault,” she said, and left.

  I crossed the room to my wardrobe and flung open the doors, sliding out the bottom drawer and lifting a green velvet pouch that held a slim jeweled dagger. It had been a gift on my sixteenth birthday from my brothers, a gift I was never allowed to use—at least openly—but the back of my dressing chamber door bore the gouged marks of my secret practice. I snatched a few more belongings, wrapping them in a chemise, and tied it all with ribbon to secure it.

  Pauline returned from dressing herself, and I handed her the small bundle.

  “I’ll take care of it,” she said, a jumble of nerves at the last-minute preparations. She left the chamber just as my mother returned with the cloak.

  “Take care of what?” my mother asked.

  “I gave her a few more things I want to take with me.”

  “The belongings you need were sent off in trunks yesterday,” she said as she crossed the room toward my bed.

  “There were a few we forgot.”

  She shook her head, reminding me there was precious little room in the carriage and that the journey to Dalbreck was a long one.

  “I’ll manage,” I answered.

  She carefully laid the cloak across my bed. It had been steamed and hung in the vault so no fold or wrinkle would tarnish its beauty. I ran my hand along the short velvet nap. The blue was as dark as midnight, and the rubies, tourmalines, and sapphires circling the edges were its stars. The jewels would prove useful. It was tradition that the cloak should be placed on the bride’s shoulders by both her parents, and yet my mother had returned alone.

  “Where is—” I started to ask, but then I heard an army of footsteps echoing in the hallway. My heart sank lower than it already was. He wasn’t coming alone, even for this. My father entered the chamber flanked by the Lord Viceregent on one side, the Chancellor and the Royal Scholar on the other, and various minions of his cabinet parading on their heels. I knew the Viceregent was only doing his job—he had pulled me aside shortly after the documents were signed and told me that he alone had argued against the marriage—but he was ultimately a rigid man of duty like the rest of them. I especially disliked the Scholar and Chancellor, as they were well aware, but I felt little guilt about it, since I knew the feeling was mutual. My skin crawled whenever I neared them, as though I had just walked through a field of blood-sucking vermin. They, more than anyone, were probably glad to be rid of me.

  My father approached, kissed both of my cheeks, and stepped back to look at me, finally breathing a hearty sigh. “As beautiful as your mother on our wedding day.”

  I wondered if the unusual display of emotion was for the benefit of those who looked on. I rarely saw a moment of affection pass between my mother and father, but then in a brief second I watched his eyes shift from me to her and linger there. My mother stared back at him, and I wondered what passed between them. Love? Or regret at love lost and what might have been? The uncertainty alone filled a strange hollow within me, and a hundred questions sprang to my lips, but with the Chancellor and Scholar and the impatient entourage looking on, I was reluctant to ask any of them. Maybe that was my father’s intent.

  The Timekeeper, a pudgy man with bulging eyes, pulled out his ever-present pocket watch. He and the others ushered my father around as if they were the ones who ruled the kingdom instead of the other way around. “We’re pressed for time, Your Majesty,” he reminded my father.

  The Viceregent gave me a sympathetic glance but nodded agreement. “We don’t want to keep the royal family of Dalbreck waiting on this momentous occasion. As you well know, Your Majesty, it wouldn’t be well received.”

  The spell and gaze were broken. My mother and father lifted the cloak and set it about my shoulders, securing the clasp at my neck, and then my father alone raised the hood over my head and again kissed each cheek, but this time with much more reserve, only fulfilling protocol. “You serve the Kingdom of Morrighan well on this day, Arabella.”

  Lia.

  He hated the name Jezelia because it had no precedent in the royal lineage, no precedent anywhere, he had argued, but my mother had insisted upon it without explanation. On this point she had remained unyielding. It was probably the last time my father conceded anything to her wishes. I never would have known as much if not for Aunt Bernette, and even she treaded carefully around the subject, still a prickly thorn between my parents.

  I searched his face. The fleeting tenderness of just a moment past was gone, his thoughts already moving on to matters of state, but I held his gaze, hoping for more. There was nothing. I lifted my chin, standing taller. “Yes, I do serve the kingdom well, as I should, Your Majesty. I am, after all, a soldier in your army.”

  He frowned and looked quizzically to my mother. Her head shook softly, silently dismissing the matter. My father, always the king first and father second, was satisfied with ignoring my remark, because as always, other matters did press. He turned and walked away with his entourage, saying he’d meet me at the abbey, his duty to me now fulfilled. Duty. That was a word I hated as much as tradition.

  “Are you ready?” my mother asked when the others had left the room.

  I nodded. “But I have to attend to a personal need before we leave. I’ll meet you in the lower hall.”

  “I can—”

  “Please, Mother—” My voice broke for the first time. “I just need a few minutes.”

  My mother relented, and I listened to the lonely echo of her footsteps as she retreated down the hallway.

  “Pauline?” I whispered, swiping at my cheeks.

  Pauline entered my room through the dressing chamber. We stared at each other, no words necessary, clearly understanding what lay ahead of us, every detail of the day already wrestled with during a long, sleepless night.

  “There’s still time to change your mind. Are you sure?” Pauline asked, giving me a last chance to back out.

  Sure? My chest squeezed with pain, a pain so deep and real I wondered if hearts really were capable of breaking. Or was it fear that pierced me? I pressed my hand hard against my chest, trying to soothe the stab I felt there. Maybe this was the point of cleaving. “There’s no turning back. The choice was made for me,” I answered. “From this moment on, this is the destiny that I’ll have to live with, for better or worse.”

  “I pray the better, my friend,” Pauline said, nodding her understanding. And with that, we hurried down the empty arched hallway toward the back of the citadelle and then down the dark servants’ stairway. We passed no one—everyone was either busy with preparations down at the abbey or waiting at the front of the citadelle for the royal procession to the square.

  We emerged through a small wooden door with thick black hinges into blinding sunlight, the wind whipping at our dresses and throwing back my hood. I spotted the back fortress gate only used for hunts and discreet departures, already open as ordered. Pauline led me across a muddy paddock to the shady hidden wall of the carriage house where a wide-eyed stable boy waited with two saddled horses. His eyes grew impossibly wider as I approached. “Your Highness, you’re to take a carriage already prepared for you,” he said, choking on his words as they tumbled out. “It’s waiting by the steps at the front of the citadelle. If you—”

  “The plans have changed,” I said firmly, and I gathered my gown up in great bunches so I could get a foothold in the stirrup. The straw-haired boy’s mouth fell open as he looked at my once pristine gown, the hem already sloshed with mud, now smearing my sleeves and lace bodice and, worse, the Morrighan jeweled wedding cloak. “But—”

  “Hurry! A hand up!” I snapped, taking the reins from him.

  He obeyed, helping Pauline in similar fashion.
<
br />   “What shall I tell—”

  I didn’t hear what else he said, the galloping hooves stampeding out all arguments past and present. With Pauline at my side, in one swift act that could never be undone, an act that ended a thousand dreams but gave birth to one, I bolted for the cover of the forest and never looked back.

  Lest we repeat history,

  the stories shall be passed

  from father to son, from mother to daughter,

  for with but one generation,

  history and truth are lost forever.

  —Morrighan Book of Holy Text, Vol. III

  CHAPTER TWO

  We screamed. We yelled with all the power of our lungs, knowing the wind, hills, and distance plucked our nervous freedom from any ears that might listen. We screamed with giddy abandon and a primal need to believe in our flight. If we didn’t believe, fear would overtake us. I already felt it nipping at my back as I pushed harder.

  We headed north, aware that the stable boy would watch us until we vanished into the forest. When we were well within its cover, we found the streambed that I’d seen on hunts with my brothers and doubled back through the trickling waters, walking in the shallow stream until we found a rocky embankment on the other side to use for our exit, leaving no prints or trail behind us for others to follow.

  Once we hit firm level ground again, we dug in our heels and rode as if a monster were chasing us. We rode and we rode, following a little-used path that hugged the dense pines, which would give us refuge if we needed to duck in quickly. Sometimes we were dizzy with laughter, sometimes tears trickled backward across our cheeks, pushed by our speed, but most of the time we were silent, not quite believing we had actually done it.

  After an hour, I wasn’t sure what ached more, my thighs, my cramping calves, or my bruised backside, all unaccustomed to anything more than a stiff royal gait because these last few months my father would not allow more. My fingers were numb from gripping the reins, but Pauline didn’t stop, so neither did I.

  My dress streamed behind me, now wedding me to a life of uncertainty, but that frightened me far less than the certain life I had faced. This life was a dream of my own making, one where my imagination was my only boundary. It was a life that I alone commanded.

  I lost track of time, the rhythm of the hooves the only thing that mattered, each beat widening the divide. Finally, almost in unison, our gleaming chestnut Ravians snorted and slowed of their own accord, as if a secret message had been spoken between them. Ravians were the pride of the Morrighan stables, and these had given us all they were worth. I looked to what little of the west I could see above the treetops. There were still at least three hours of daylight. We couldn’t stop yet. We pressed on at a slower pace, and finally as the sun disappeared behind the Andeluchi Range, we searched for a safe place to camp for the night.

  I listened carefully as we rode the horses through the trees and scouted for what might be a likely shelter. My neck prickled when the sudden distant squawk of birds pealed through the forest like a warning. We came upon the crumbled ruins of the Ancients, partial walls and pillars that were now more forest than civilization. They were thick with green moss and lichen, which was probably the only thing still knitting the remains upright. Maybe the modest ruins were once part of a glorious temple, but now ferns and vines were reclaiming them for the earth. Pauline kissed the back of her hand as both blessing and protection from spirits that might linger and clicked the reins to hurry past. I didn’t kiss my hand, nor hurry past, but instead surveyed the green bones of another time with curiosity, as I always did, and wondered at the people who had created them.

  We finally came to a small clearing. With a last glimmer of daylight overhead, and both of us sagging in our saddles, we agreed silently that this was the place to camp. All I wanted to do was collapse on the grass and sleep until morning, but the horses were just as weary and still deserved our attention, since they were our only real way to escape.

  We removed the saddles, letting them fall with an unceremonious clunk to the ground because we didn’t have the strength for more, then shook out the damp blankets and hung them on a branch to dry. We patted the animals’ rears, and they went straight to the stream for a drink.

  Pauline and I collapsed together, both too tired to eat, though neither of us had eaten all day. This morning we had been too nervous over our clandestine plans to even have a proper meal. Though I’d considered running away for weeks, it had been unthinkable even for me, until my farewell feast last night with my family in Aldrid Hall. That was when everything changed and the unthinkable suddenly seemed like my only possible choice. When toasts and laughter were flying through the room, and I was suffocating under the weight of the revelry and the satisfied smiles of the cabinet, my eyes met Pauline’s. She was standing in waiting against the far wall with the other attendants. When I shook my head, she knew. I couldn’t do it. She nodded in return.

  It was a silent exchange that no one else noticed, but late in the evening when everyone had retired, she returned to my chamber and the plans poured out between us. There was so little time and so much to arrange, and almost all of it hinged on getting two horses saddled with no one the wiser. At dawn, Pauline bypassed the Stable Master, who was busy preparing teams for the royal procession, and spoke quietly with the youngest stable boy, an inexperienced lad who would be too intimidated to question a direct request from the queen’s court. So far, our hasty, patched-together plans had worked out.

  Though we were too weary to eat, as the sun dropped lower and the light grew dimmer, our exhaustion gave way to fear. We scavenged for firewood to keep creatures that lurked in the forest a safe distance from us, or at least allow us to see their teeth before they devoured us.

  Darkness came quickly and masked the whole world beyond the small flickering circle warming our feet. I watched the flames lick the air in front of us, listened to the crackle, the hiss, and the rustle of settling wood. These were the only sounds, but we listened for more.

  “Do you suppose there are bears?” Pauline asked.

  “Most certainly.” But my mind had already turned to tigers. I had faced one eye to eye when I was only ten, so close I felt his breath, his snarling, his spit, his utter immensity about to engulf me. I had waited to die. Why he hadn’t attacked instantly I didn’t know, but a distant shout from my brother searching for me was all that saved my life. The animal disappeared into the forest as quickly as he had arrived. No one believed me when I told them. There were reports of tigers in the Cam Lanteux, but their numbers were few. Morrighan wasn’t their natural realm. The beast’s glassy yellow eyes still haunted my dreams. I peered past the flames into the darkness, where my dagger was still inside my saddlebag, just steps outside our safe circle of light. How foolish I was to think of it only now.

  “Or worse than bears, there might be barbarians,” I said with mock terror in my voice, trying to lighten both our moods.

  Pauline’s eyes grew wide, though a smile played behind them. “I’ve heard they breed like rabbits and bite the heads off small animals.”

  “And speak only in snorting grunts.” I’d heard the stories too. Soldiers brought tales back from their patrols about the barbarians’ brutal ways and growing numbers. It was only because of them that the longstanding animosity between Morrighan and Dalbreck had been put aside and an uneasy alliance struck—at my expense. A large, fierce kingdom on the other side of the continent with a growing population and rumored to be stretching its borders was more of a threat than a somewhat civilized neighboring kingdom that was at least descended from the chosen Remnant. Together, the combined forces of Morrigan and Dalbreck could be great, but alone they were miserably vulnerable. Only the Great River and the Cam Lanteux held the barbarians back.

  Pauline threw another dry branch onto the fire. “You’re gifted at languages—you should have no problem with the barbarians’ grunts. That’s how half the king’s court speaks.”

  We broke into gig
gles, imitating the Chancellor’s rumbles and the Scholar’s haughty sighs.

  “Have you ever seen one?” she asked.

  “Me? See a barbarian? I’ve been kept on such a short chain these last few years, I’ve scarcely seen anything.” My free days of roaming the hills and chasing after my brothers ended abruptly when my parents decided I was beginning to look like a woman so I should behave like one too. I was ripped from the freedoms I shared with Walther, Regan, and Bryn, like exploring the ruins in the woods, racing our horses across meadows, hunting small game, and getting into a fair amount of mischief. As we got older, their mischiefs continued to be shrugged off, but mine were not, and I knew from that point that I was measured by a different stick than my brothers.

  After my activities were restricted, I developed a knack for slipping out unnoticed—as I did today. Not a skill my parents would have prized, though I was quite proud of it. The Scholar suspected my meanderings and set weak traps, which I easily avoided. He knew I had rummaged through the ancient text room, which was forbidden, the texts supposedly too delicate for careless hands like mine. But back then, even though I’d managed to sneak away from the confines of the citadelle, there was really nowhere to go from there. Everyone in Civica knew who I was, and word would certainly have gotten back to my parents. As a result, my escapes had mostly been limited to occasional nighttime forays to dim back rooms for games of cards or dice with my brothers and their trusted friends who knew how to keep their mouths shut about Walther’s little sister, and who might have even been sympathetic to my plight. My brothers had always enjoyed the look of surprise on their friends’ faces when I gave it as well as I took it. Words and topics were not spared because of my gender or title, and those scandalous chinwags educated me in ways that a royal tutor never could.

  I shaded my eyes with my hand as if I were peering into the dark woods searching for them. “I’d welcome the diversion of a savage right now. Barbarians, show yourselves!” I shouted. There was no answer. “I do believe we frighten them.”

 
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