The kiss of deception, p.20
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.20

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  “Kaden?”

  “Who else?”

  Rafe pulled me closer, and his fingers gently strummed my spine. Hot splinters whirled in my stomach. We had only seconds together before the music changed to a fast jig. Soon we were pulled apart by the swift exchange of partners. The pace was brisk, and I found myself laughing, the lights twinkling and swirling past my view, more joining in, Pauline, Berdi, Gwyneth, priests, the farrier, little Simone holding her father’s hand, strangers I didn’t know, everyone singing, hooting, stepping into the center circle to show off a few fancy steps, the zitarae, fiola, and drum thrumming at our temples.

  My face damp with the revelry, I finally had to catch my breath and step back to watch. It was a fast whirl of color and movement, Rafe dancing with Berdi, the seamstress, schoolgirls, Kaden taking Pauline’s hand, Gwyneth with the tanner, the miller, an endless circle of celebration and thanks. Yes, that’s what it was, thankfulness for this one moment, regardless of what the morrow might bring.

  The words Rafe had spoken rang clear again. Some things last … the things that matter. The very words I had scoffed at only weeks ago now filled me with wonder. Tonight was one of those things that would last—what I was witnessing right now at this very moment—and I saw a time past, a time even before that, the Ancients dancing in this very street, breathless, feeling the same joy I was experiencing now. The temples, the wondrous bridges, the greatness may not last, but some things do. Nights like this. They go on and on, outlasting the moon, because they’re made of something else, something as quiet as a heartbeat and as sweeping as the wind. For me, tonight would last forever.

  Rafe spotted me on the fringe of the crowd and slipped away too. We walked through the plaza that was flickering with floating candles, the music fading behind us, and we disappeared into the dark shadows of the forest beyond, where no one, not Kaden, Pauline, or anyone else, could find us.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

  I stretched in the bed, my legs sliding along the cool sheets, and smiled again. I had half slept, half dreamed, and half relived every moment all night long—too many halves to fit into one night.

  There was a bond between us I couldn’t name. A sadness, a regret, a falling short, a past. I saw the yearning in his eyes, not just for me but for something more, a peace, a wholeness, and I wanted to give it to him.

  I was immersed again in his tenderness … his finger tracing a line down my shoulder, slipping my strap free so he could kiss my back, his lips barely brushing along my kavah, my whole body tingling at his touch, our lips meeting over and over again.

  From the first day, Lia, I wanted this, wanted you.

  Our fingers laced together, tumbling in a bed of leaves, my head resting on his chest, feeling the beat of his heart, his hand stroking my hair. I had to get some sleep, but I couldn’t stop reliving it. I hadn’t thought it could be this way. Ever. With anyone.

  We had talked for hours. He loved fishing from a riverbank, but he rarely had the time. He hesitated when I asked about his parents, but then told me they had died when he was young. He had no one else, which explained why he had no schooling in the Holy Text. He had worked on a farm, mostly tending the horses and other livestock, but also helping with the fields. Yes, melons were one of the things they grew, just as I had imagined. He hated pigeon meat and was glad we left the dinner early yesterday. I shared my stories too, mostly about forays into the mountains or forests with my brothers, who remained unnamed. I was careful to leave royal details out. He was surprised to learn I had favored swordplay over stitchery, backroom card games over music lessons. He promised to challenge me to a game one day.

  It was late when he walked me back. Pauline had left the lantern out for me. Our words just kept stringing on and on, always one more thing to say to keep us from parting, one more thing we needed to share. Finally I kissed him one last time and told him good night, but as I reached for the door handle, he stopped me.

  “Lia, there’s one more thing, something else I need to—”

  “Tomorrow, Rafe. We have all day tomorrow. It’s late.”

  He nodded, then lifted my hand to his lips and left.

  A perfect night … a perfect forever.

  I was in that half-awake dreamworld all night long, until the early morning hours, when the first muted light tiptoed along the ledge of the window, and my dreams finally gave way to sleep.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-EIGHT

  “Lia.”

  A nudge on my shoulder.

  “Lia, wake up.”

  Another nudge.

  “Lia! You have to wake up!”

  I startled awake, sitting upright. Pauline sat on the edge of the bed. The room was bright. I had slept all morning.

  “What is it?” I said, shielding my eyes against the light. And then I noticed Pauline’s expression. “What?”

  “It’s Walther. He’s behind the icehouse. Something’s wrong, Lia. He’s—”

  I was out of the bed, groggy, rummaging for pants, a shirt, something to throw on. Walther behind the icehouse? My palms were damp with sweat. Pauline’s voice was shrill. Something’s wrong. I threw down whatever was bunched in my hands and ran out of the cottage barefoot and in my nightdress.

  I saw his tobiano first, lathered and snorting, as if it had been ridden all night. “Take him to the barn and wipe him down,” I called to Pauline, who was running behind me. I rounded the corner of the icehouse and saw Walther sitting on the ground, leaning against a broken overturned wheelbarrow that was stored there along with unused crates and a jumble of other castoffs.

  “Lia,” he said when he saw me.

  My breath stopped dead against my ribs. He had a gash on his forehead, but worse, his expression was crazed—this was a wild man pretending to be my brother.

  “Walther, what is it?” I rushed to his side and fell to my knees. My hand went to his forehead, and he looked at me and said “Lia” again, as if it were the first time.

  “Walther, you’re hurt. What happened?”

  His eyes were desolate. “I have to do something, Lia. I have to do something.”

  I took his face in my hands, forcing him to look at me. “Walther, please,” I said firmly. “You have to tell me what’s wrong so I can help you.”

  He looked at me, almost like a child. “You’re strong, Lia. You were always the strongest of us. That’s what worried Mother.”

  He was making no sense at all. His gaze drifted away, and his eyes were glassy and rimmed in red. “There was nothing I could do,” he said. “Not for either of them.”

  I grabbed his shirt and shook him. “Walther! What happened?”

  He looked back at me, his lips cracked, his hair falling in his face in filthy, oily strands. His voice was passionless. “She’s dead. Greta’s dead.”

  I shook my head. It wasn’t possible.

  “An arrow straight through her throat.” His gaze remained vacant. “She looked at me, Lia. She knew. Her eyes. She couldn’t speak. She just looked at me, knowing, and then she fell forward into my lap. Dead.”

  I listened as my brother recounted each shattered piece of his dream. I held him, rocked him, huddled with him in the squalor and mud. When I saw Pauline and Berdi round the corner of the icehouse, I waved them away. My brother, my strapping soldier brother, wept in my arms. He straddled a line between tears and dispassionate belief and told me every detail, unable to separate the relevant from the inconsequential. Her dress was blue. She had braided her hair in a circle around her head that morning. The baby was moving. They were on their way to Greta’s aunt’s house. It was only an hour’s ride in the carriage from her parents’ manor. Her sister and her family were in the carriage just behind them. They were going to have lunch. Only an hour, he repeated over and over again. An hour. And daylight. It was daylight. They were just about to cross the bridge from Chetsworth into Briarglen when there was a tremendous roar. He heard the driver shout, there was a loud thump, and then the carriage lurched. He was about to look
out to see what had happened when he heard another sound, the thump, thump, thump of arrows. He turned to shove Greta down, but it was too late.

  “They were there to destroy the bridge,” he said. His eyes were wide, his voice numb again, as if he had replayed the scene over in his own head a thousand times already. “We came along just as it was going down. The driver shouted at them, and they killed him. Then sprayed us with more arrows before they galloped off.”

  “Who, Walther? Who did this?”

  “I took her back to her parents. I knew that’s where she’d want to go. I took her back, Lia. I washed her. I wrapped her in a blanket and held her. Her and the baby. I held her for two days before they made me give her to them.”

  “Who did this?”

  He looked at me, his eyes suddenly focused again, his mouth contorting in disgust as if I hadn’t been listening. “I have to go.”

  “No,” I whispered softly, trying to soothe him. “No.” I reached up to push his hair aside and check the gash in his forehead. He hadn’t told me how he got it. In his crazed state, he probably didn’t even know it was there.

  He pushed my hand away. “I have to go.”

  He tried to get up, and I pushed him back against the carcass of the wheelbarrow. “Go where? You can’t go anywhere like—”

  He pushed me away roughly, and I fell back. “I have to go!” he yelled. “My platoon. I have to catch up.”

  I ran after him, pleading for him to stop. I pulled on him, begging him to wait, to at least let me wash his wounds, feed him something, clean his blood-soaked clothing, but he didn’t seem to hear me. He grabbed the reins of his tobiano and led him out of the barn. I yelled. I held on. I tried to pull the reins from him.

  He spun, grabbed both of my arms, shook me, screamed. “I’m a soldier, Lia! I’m not a husband anymore! I’m not a father! I’m a soldier!”

  Rage had made him into someone I didn’t know, but then he pulled me to his chest and held me, sobbing into my hair. I thought my ribs would crack under his grip, then he pushed away and said, “I have to go.”

  And he did.

  And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop him.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE

  It can take years to mold a dream. It takes only a fraction of a second for it to be shattered. I sat at the kitchen table, holding a piece of Walther’s shattered dream. Gwyneth, Berdi, and Pauline sat with me.

  I had already told them everything I knew. They tried to reassure me that Walther would be all right, that he needed time to grieve, that he needed a lot of things I couldn’t even hear them saying anymore. Instead my head throbbed with my brother’s cries. An arrow straight through her throat.

  Their voices were soft, tentative, quiet, trying to help me through this. But how could Walther ever be all right? Greta was dead. She fell open-eyed into his lap. Walther didn’t leave here as a soldier, he left as a crazed man. He didn’t leave to go join his platoon—he left to get his revenge.

  Gwyneth reached out and touched my hand. “It’s not your fault, Lia,” she said as if she could read my thoughts.

  I pulled my hand away and jumped up from the chair. “Of course it’s my fault! Who else’s would it be? Those packs of hyenas are ranging right into Morrighan now because they’re no longer afraid! All because I refused to marry someone I didn’t love.” I spit the last word out with every bit of the revulsion I was feeling.

  “No one knows with certainty if an alliance would have done anything to stop them,” Berdi tried to reason.

  I looked at her, shaking my head, thinking that certainty didn’t matter in the least anymore. Guarantees weren’t even part of my universe right now. I would have married the devil himself if there had been even the slimmest chance it could have saved Greta and the baby. Who would be next?

  “It’s only one rogue band, Lia, not an army. We’ve always had those. And the attack was on a remote border,” Pauline argued.

  I walked over to the fireplace and stared at the small flame. She was right on that count. But this time it was something more. I could feel it. It was something gray and grim slithering through me. I remembered the hesitation in Walther’s voice. We’ll keep them out. We always do. But not this time.

  It had been brewing all along. I just hadn’t seen it. A crucial alliance, my mother had called it. Was sacrificing a daughter the only way to achieve it? Maybe it was when so much distrust had been banked for centuries. This alliance was meant to be more than a piece of paper that could be burned. It was to be an alliance made of flesh and blood.

  I looked down at the tiny white lace cap in my hands that I had planned to give to Walther and Greta. I fingered the lace, remembering the joy I had in buying it. Greta was dead. The baby was dead. Walther was a crazed man.

  I tossed it into the fire, heard the hushed murmurs around me, watched the lace catch, curl, blacken, flame, become ash. As if it had never been there.

  “I need to go wash up.” My legs were still caked in mud.

  “Do you want me to go with you?” Pauline asked.

  “No,” I answered, and quietly closed the door behind me.

  On the far side of death,

  Past the great divide,

  Where hunger eats souls,

  Their tears will increase.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER FORTY

  Thunk.

  Thunk.

  Thunk.

  Thunk.

  I had been standing in the meadow for two hours, throwing my knife over and over again. It was a small stump, and I rarely missed anymore. I had trampled the wild mustard down into a straight neat path from going to retrieve the knife. There were only a few stray throws when I had allowed my mind to wander.

  Thunk.

  Thunk.

  And then the whir, the chink, the swish of it missing its mark and disappearing into the tall grass behind the stump. Walther’s words, Walther’s face, Walther’s anguish wouldn’t leave me. I tried to sort it all into something that made sense, but there was no sense, not when it came to murder. Greta wasn’t a soldier. The baby hadn’t even drawn a first breath. Savages. I went to find my knife, lost somewhere in the grass.

  “Lia?”

  I turned. It was Kaden. He swung down from his horse. I knew by his manner he had heard something, probably from hushed voices in the tavern.

  “How did you find me?”

  “It wasn’t hard.”

  The meadow bordered the road leading out of town. I supposed I was in full view of anyone passing by.

  “Berdi said you and Rafe went out early this morning. Before sunup.” I listened to the flatness of my voice. It sounded like it belonged to someone else.

  “I don’t know where Rafe went. I had some arrangements to take care of.”

  “The duties you spoke of.”

  He nodded.

  I looked at him, his hair blowing in the breeze, a white burnished gold in the bright midday sun. His eyes rested on me, sure and steady.

  I kissed his cheek. “You’re a good person, Kaden. Steadfast and true to your duty.”

  “Lia, can I—”

  “Go away, Kaden,” I said. “Go away. I need time to think about my own duties.”

  I turned and walked back through the meadow, not waiting to see if he listened to me or not, but I heard his horse trot off. I retrieved my knife from the grass and threw it again.

  Her dress was blue. The baby was moving.

  I have to do something, Lia. I have to do something.

  This time I saw more than Walther’s face. More than Greta’s.

  I saw Bryn. I saw Regan.

  I saw Pauline.

  I have to do something.

  CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

  RAFE

  It was twilight when I returned. I hadn’t eaten all day, and my head was pounding. I led my horse to the barn and unsaddled him, feeling the burn of wind and sun on my skin from a long day of riding. I was tired, still trying to sort the timing of every
thing out. How would we pull this off? I raked my fingers through my hair. I hadn’t planned my trip well, but after the late night with Lia, I’d had little sleep.

  “We need to talk.”

  I looked over my shoulder. I was so preoccupied I hadn’t heard her come in. I heaved my saddle onto the rack and faced her. “Lia—”

  “Where did you go?” Her shoulders were stiff, and her tone curt.

  I took a hesitant step toward her. “I had some business to take care of. Is that a problem?”

  “An out-of-work farmhand with business?”

  What was wrong with her? “I told you my lack of work was temporary. Supplies needed to be ordered.” I threw the horse blanket still in my hands over the stall wall and closed the space between us. I looked into her eyes, wanting to kiss every black lash, wondering how this had happened to me. She reached up and pulled my face down to hers, pressed her lips hard against mine, then slid her hands down my neck to my chest, and her fingers dug into my skin. It wasn’t desire I heard in her breaths, but desperation. I pulled back. I stared at her and touched my lip where her rough kiss had nicked my flesh.

  “Something’s wrong,” I said.

  “I’m leaving, Rafe. Tomorrow.”

  I stared at her, not quite understanding what she was saying. “What do you mean, leaving?”

  She walked over to a bale of hay in an empty stall and sat, looking up at the rafters. “I have to return home,” she said. “I have an obligation I need to meet.”

  Home? Now? My mind raced. “What kind of obligation?”

  “The permanent kind. I won’t be back.”

  “Ever?”

  She stared at me, her expression blank. “Ever,” she finally said. “I haven’t told you everything about my family, Rafe. I’ve been manipulated and lied to my entire life. I’m not going back because I want to, but one fact remains—I’ve caused them and others a lot of pain through my disloyalties. If I don’t go back, I may cause far more. I need to return to live up to my duty.”

 
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