The kiss of deception, p.21
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.21

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Her voice was rigid and unfeeling. I rubbed my chin. She looked so different. A different Lia than I had ever seen. Manipulated and lied to. I glanced away, my eyes darting back and forth, unable to focus. I tried to sort through what she had said and refigure my own thwarted plans at the same time. I looked back at her. “And your family will give you this chance?”

  “I don’t know. But I have to try.”

  Tomorrow. I’d thought I had more time. It was too soon. The plans—


  “Wait,” I said. “Let me think. I have to figure this out.”

  “There’s nothing to figure out.”

  “Does it have to be tomorrow? Can’t it wait a few more days?”

  “No. It can’t wait.”

  She sat stone still. What had happened while I was gone? But it was obvious her decision was made and final.

  “I understand about duty, Lia,” I said, trying to buy time and think this through. “Duty is important.” And loyalty. I swallowed, my throat dry with road dust. “When will you leave tomorrow?” I asked.

  “In the morning. Early.”

  I nodded, even as my mind reeled. That gave me very little time. But one thing I knew with certainty, I couldn’t let her go back to Civica.


  There wasn’t much to pack. Everything I had would fit into a double-sided saddlebag with room to spare. I wasn’t taking the new clothes I’d bought. I’d leave those here for Pauline, since I couldn’t wear them in Civica anyway. I’d take some food too, but this time I’d be staying at inns along the way. That was one of the concessions I’d made when Pauline angrily threw the pouch of jewels I had given her back in my face. We had argued all afternoon. There had been words with Berdi too, but she finally accepted that I had to go. As for Gwyneth, I think she knew all along, even before I did.

  But Pauline had become fierce in a way I had never seen. She finally stomped off to the tavern when I pulled my bag from the wardrobe. I couldn’t tell her that hers had been one of the faces I had seen in the meadow. A face like Greta’s, open-eyed but not seeing, another casualty if I didn’t do something.

  Whether the alliance ended up being effective or not, I couldn’t take the chance of even one more person I loved being destroyed if I might have been able to prevent it. I looked around the small cottage to see if I had forgotten anything and saw my garland of lavender flowers hanging from the bedpost. I couldn’t take it with me. The dried flowers would only be crushed in the saddlebag. I lifted it from the bedpost and held it to my face, sniffing the fading scent. Rafe.

  I closed my eyes, trying to force away the sting. Even though there was nothing he could say or do to make me change my mind, I’d thought he’d at least try to talk me out of it. More than try—demand. I had wanted him to give me a hundred reasons why I should stay. He hadn’t even given me one. Was it that easy to let me go?

  I understand about duty.

  I swiped at the tears rolling down my cheeks.

  Maybe he had seen it in my face. Maybe he’d heard the resolve in my voice. Maybe he’d been trying to make it easier for me.

  Maybe I was just making excuses for him.

  Lia, I have to take care of something early, but mid-morning I’ll meet you at the blue cistern for one last good-bye. You shouldn’t be farther than that by then. Promise you’ll meet me there.

  What good would one last good-bye do? Wouldn’t it just prolong the pain? I should have told him no, but I couldn’t do that either. I saw the anguish in his face, as if he were battling something large and cruel. My news had jolted him. Maybe that was all I needed, some sign that he didn’t want me to go.

  He had pulled me into his arms and kissed me gently, sweetly, like the first time he had kissed me, remorseful as he had been that night.

  “Lia,” he whispered. “Lia.” And I heard the words I love you, even if he didn’t say them.


  I hugged Berdi. Kissed her cheek. I hugged her again. I’d already said my good-byes last night, but Berdi and Gwyneth were both out on the tavern porch again early this morning with enough food stuffed into burlap sacks to feed two.

  Rafe and Kaden were both gone before I was up. I was sorry I didn’t at least get to say good-bye to Kaden, but I knew I’d see Rafe later at the cistern. What was all this business he suddenly had to take care of? Maybe today was the day everyone had to live up to past lives and duties. Pauline and I had had more words before we went to bed, and she was out of the cottage even before I was this morning. There had been no good-byes between us.

  I hugged Gwyneth. “You’ll look after Pauline, won’t you?”

  “Of course,” she whispered.

  “Watch your mouth, now, you hear?” Berdi added. “At least until you get there. And then you give them an earful.”

  There was the real possibility I wouldn’t be given the chance to say anything. I was still a deserter. A traitor. But certainly even my father’s cabinet could see the advantage at this point of setting my transgressions aside and at least letting me try to win back the good graces of Dalbreck.

  I smiled. “An earful,” I promised her.

  I lifted the two sacks and wondered how I was going to load all of this onto Otto.


  I spun around.

  Pauline was dressed in her riding clothes with Nove and Dieci tacked up and in tow.

  “No,” I said. “You’re not going with me.”

  “Is that a royal order? What are you going to do? Behead me if I follow along? Are you back to being Her Royal Highness so quickly?”

  I looked at the two sacks of food in my hands and then narrowed my eyes at Berdi and Gwyneth. They shrugged.

  I shook my head. I couldn’t argue with Pauline anymore. “Let’s go.”

  * * *

  We left just as we’d arrived, in our old riding clothes, with three donkeys carrying us where we needed to go. But not everything was the same. We were different now.

  Behind us, Terravin was still a jewel. Not idyllic. Not perfect. But perfect for me. Perfect for us. I stopped at the crest of the hill and looked back, only small glimpses of the bay still visible between the trees. Terravin. I understood monuments now. Some were built of stone and sweat, and others were built of dreams, but they were all made of the things we didn’t want to forget.

  “Lia?” Pauline had halted Nove and was looking back at me.

  I gave Otto a nudge, and we caught up. I had to move on to a new hope now. One made of flesh and blood and promise. An alliance. And if it would exact the revenge that I saw in Walther’s eyes, so much the better.

  “How are you feeling?” I asked Pauline.

  She looked at me sideways, an eye roll added in for good measure. “I’m fine, Lia. If I was able to ride all the way here at breakneck speed on a Ravian, I’m certainly able to amble along at a turtle’s pace on Nove. My biggest challenge right now is these riding trousers. They’re getting a bit snug.” She pulled on the waistband.

  “We’ll take care of that in Luiseveque,” I said.

  “Maybe we can meet with those back-alley traders again,” she said mischievously.

  I smiled. I knew she was trying to lift my spirits.

  The highway was busy. We were scarcely out of sight of one person or another at any time. Small squads of a dozen or even fewer soldiers passed us three times. There were also frequent passing travelers returning to distant homes after the festival, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone. The company on the road was some comfort. Gwyneth’s warning about an assassin had more heft now, though I’d still be impossible to identify. After weeks in the sun, and as much time with my hands in a kitchen sink, I looked more like a country maid than ever. Especially riding a mop-haired donkey. Still, I kept my jerkin loosely laced so I could easily slip my hand beneath it to get to my knife if I should need it.

  I had no idea where Walther’s platoon might have been when he said he had to catch up with
them. I hoped they were still at Civica and not stationed at some distant outpost. Maybe together with Bryn and Regan we could talk some sense into him—if I got there in time. Walther was in no state of mind to be riding anywhere. I wanted Greta’s death avenged too, but not at the cost of losing him. Of course, I was again supposing I’d be allowed to talk to anyone at all. I wasn’t sure what awaited me back in Civica.

  The cistern was still at least an hour away. I remembered the first time I saw it, thinking it looked like a crown on top of the hill. For me it had been a marker of a beginning, and now it would mark the end—the last place I’d meet with Rafe.

  I tried not to think about him. My courage and resolve floundered when I did, but he was impossible to keep from my thoughts. I knew I had to tell him the truth about myself—why I had to say good-bye to Terravin and to him. I owed him that much. Maybe on some level, he already understood. Maybe that was why he didn’t try to talk me out of it. I understand about duty. I wished he didn’t.

  “Water?” Pauline held out a canteen to me. Her cheeks were pink with the heat. How I longed for the cool breeze of the bay.

  I took the canteen from her and swigged down a gulp, then poured some down my shirt to cool off. It was still early, but the heat on the road was already daunting. The riding clothes were stifling, but at least they offered some protection from the sun. I looked down at one of the many frayed tears in my trousers, the fabric peeling back to expose my knee, and I started laughing, laughing so hard I could scarcely catch my breath. My eyes watered with tears.

  Pauline looked at me, startled, and I said, “Look at us! Can you imagine?”

  My laughter caught hold, and she let loose with a snort and laughter too. “It might all be worth it,” she said, “just to see everyone’s jaw drop.”

  Oh, jaws would certainly drop. Especially the Chancellor’s and the Scholar’s.

  Our laughter quieted slowly, like something wound fist-tight, unraveling, and in seconds, it seemed like the whole world had fallen silent with us.


  I noticed the road was empty for once, no one ahead, and when I looked back, no one was behind us either. I couldn’t see far. We were in a basin between hills. Maybe that accounted for the prickly silence that suddenly surrounded us.

  I listened carefully to the plodding of hooves on dirt. The chink and jingle of tack. The silence.

  “Wait,” I said, putting my hand out to stop Pauline, and then in a whisper, “wait.”

  I sat there hushed, my blood rushing in my ears, and cocked my head to the side. Listen. Pauline didn’t utter a word, waiting for me to say something. Bucktoothed Dieci hawed behind us, and I shook my head. “It was nothing, I guess. I—”

  And then I saw it.

  There was a figure on a horse in the shadows of scrub oak less than twenty paces from the road. I stopped breathing. The sun was in my eyes, so only when he emerged from the shadows could I see who it was. I let out a relieved sigh.

  “Kaden,” I called, “what are you doing here?” We pulled our donkeys off the road to meet him. He brought his horse closer, leisurely, until he was only an arm’s length from me. Otto pulled on his reins and stamped, nervous with the towering horse so close to him. Kaden looked different—taller and stiffer in his saddle.

  “I can’t let you go, Lia,” he said.

  He came all the way out here to tell me that? I sighed. “Kaden, I know—”

  He reached out and grabbed my reins from me. “Get down from your donkeys.”

  I looked at him, confused and annoyed. Pauline glanced from him to me, the same confusion in her eyes. I reached out to snatch my reins back. He’d have to accept—

  “Bedage! Ges mi nay akuro fasum!” he yelled, not to me, but toward the scrub of forest that he had just come from. More riders emerged.

  I gaped at Kaden. Bedage? Disbelief left me immobile for a feverish second, and then the truth stabbed me with horror. I yanked at the reins he still clutched in his hands, fury flashing through me, and I screamed for Pauline to run. It was chaos as horse slammed donkey and Kaden grabbed at my arms. I pulled away and tumbled from Otto. Our only chance of escape was running on foot and hiding in the thick scrub—if we could make it that far.

  We didn’t even have time to move before the other horsemen were upon us. One of them snatched Pauline from Nove. She screamed, and another arm swiped at me. The silence had exploded into a fireball of noise from both man and beast. A husky hand grabbed at my hair, and I fell to the ground. I rolled and saw Pauline biting an arm that held her and getting away with the man on her heels. I didn’t remember grabbing it, but my knife was clutched in my fist and I threw it, the blade hitting her pursuer solidly in the shoulder. He screamed, falling to his knees and roaring as he pulled the knife out. Blood gushed from the wound. Kaden caught Pauline, seizing her from behind, and two thick arms clamped down on me at the same time. The wounded man continued to curse and roar in a language that I knew could only be Vendan.

  I locked gazes with Kaden.

  “You shouldn’t have done that, Lia,” he said. “You don’t want to get on Finch’s bad side.”

  I glared at him. “Go to hell, Kaden. Go straight to hell.”

  Unwavering, he never blinked, his steadfastness now transformed into something frighteningly detached. He switched his attention from me to a man near him. “Malich, this one will have to ride with you. I hadn’t counted on her.”

  The one named Malich stepped forward with a lewd smile and grabbed Pauline roughly by the wrist, taking her from Kaden. “Gladly.”

  “No!” I yelled. “She has nothing to do with this. Let her go!”

  “I can’t do that,” Kaden answered calmly, handing Finch a filthy rag to stuff under his clothing for the wound. “Once we’re in the middle of nowhere, we’ll let her go.”

  Malich dragged Pauline toward his horse as she clawed and kicked at him.

  “Kaden, no! Please!” I screamed. “For the gods’ sake, she’s carrying a child!”

  Kaden stopped mid-step. “Hold up,” he said to Malich. He studied me to see if it was a ploy.

  He turned to Pauline. “Is this true?”

  Tears streamed down Pauline’s face, and she nodded.

  He scowled. “Another widow with a baby,” he said under his breath. He looked back at me. “If I let her go, will you come along without a struggle?”

  “Yes,” I answered quickly—maybe too quickly.

  His eyes narrowed. “I have your word?”

  I nodded.

  “Kez mika ren,” he said.

  The arm that clamped me so tightly released, and I stumbled forward, not realizing my feet had barely been touching the ground. They all stared at me to see if I was true to my word. I stood motionless, trying to catch my breath.

  “Lia, no,” Pauline cried.

  I shook my head and put my fingers to my lips, kissing them, barely lifting them to the air. “Please, Pauline. Trust the gods. Shh. It will be all right.” Her eyes were wild with fear, but she nodded back to me.

  Kaden stepped close to Pauline while Malich held her. “I’m going to take the donkeys deep in the scrub and tie them to a tree. You’re to stay there with them until the sun is sinking behind the opposite hills. If you leave one minute earlier than that, you will die. If you send anyone after us, Lia will die. Do you understand me, Pauline?”

  “Kaden, you can’t—”

  He leaned closer, holding her chin with his hand. “Do you understand, Pauline?”

  “Yes,” she whispered.

  “Good.” He grabbed the reins of his horse, shouting instructions to a smaller rider I hadn’t paid attention to. He was only a boy. They took the saddlebag from Otto and strapped it to another horse, along with my canteen. Kaden retrieved my knife, which Finch had thrown to the ground, and stuffed it into his own bag.

  “Why can’t I just kill her now?” the boy asked.

  “Eben! Twaz enar boche!” the scarred burly man shouted.
br />   There was a flurry of hot language, I presumed over when and where to kill me, but even as they spoke, they moved swiftly, leading us and the donkeys to the cover of the scrub. Finch glared at me, holding his wound and cursing in broken Morrighese that I was lucky it was only a flesh wound.

  “My aim is poor,” I told him. “I aimed for your black heart, but not to worry, the poison I dipped the blade in should take effect soon and make for your very slow and painful death.”

  His eyes flashed wide, and he lunged at me, but Kaden pushed him back and yelled something in Vendan, then turned to me, roughly jerking my arm and pulling me close. “Don’t bait them, Lia,” he whispered between gritted teeth. “They all want to kill you right now, and it would take little enough for them to do it.” Even though I didn’t know their language, I had gotten that message without his translation.

  We walked deeper into the scrub, thick with oak and buckbrush, and when the road could no longer be seen, they tied the donkeys to the trees. Kaden repeated his instructions to Pauline.

  He motioned me to the horse I was to ride.

  I turned to Pauline, her lashes wet and her face smeared with dirt. “Remember, my friend, count to pass the time—as we did on our way here.” She nodded, and I kissed her cheek.

  Kaden eyed me suspiciously. “Get up.”

  My horse was huge, almost as big as his beast. He gave me a hand up, but held back the reins. “You’ll regret it if you break your word to me.”

  I glared down at him. “A cunning liar who relies on the word of another? I suppose I should appreciate the colossal irony.” I held my hand out for the reins. “But I gave you my word, and I’ll keep it.”

  For now.

  He handed me the reins, and I turned to follow the others.

  Pauline and I had pushed our Ravians at what seemed like breakneck speed, but these black beasts flew like winged demons chased by the devil. I dared not turn one way or another, or I would have flown from the saddle and been trampled by Kaden’s horse behind me. When the scrub receded, we rode abreast, Kaden on one side of me, the boy Eben on the other. Only savages would train a child to kill.

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