The kiss of deception, p.23
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.23

           Mary E. Pearson
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  I woke to a grinning face and a knife at my throat.

  “If you have the gift, why didn’t you see me coming in your dreams?”

  It was the boy, Eben. He had the voice of a girl, and his eyes were those of a curious waif. A child. But his intent was that of a seasoned thief. He intended to steal my life. If the gift was all that was keeping me alive, Eben didn’t seem to have gotten the message.

  “I saw you coming,” I said.

  “Then why didn’t you wake to fend me off?”

  “Because I also saw—”

  He was suddenly catapulted through the air, landing several feet away.

  I sat up, looking at Griz, whom I had seen glaring over Eben’s shoulder. While he wasn’t fond of me, Griz also appeared not to tolerate rash independent decisions. Kaden was already on Eben, yanking him from the ground by the scruff.

  “I wasn’t going to hurt her,” Eben complained, rubbing his bruised chin. “I was just playing with her.”

  “Play like that again, and you’ll be left behind without a horse,” Kaden shouted, and shoved him back to the ground. “Remember, she’s the Komizar’s prize, not yours.” He walked over and unshackled my ankle from a saddle, a precaution he had called it, to make sure I didn’t try to make a run for it during the night.

  “And now I’m a prize?” I asked.

  “The bounty of war,” he said matter-of-factly.

  “I wasn’t aware we were at war.”

  “We’ve always been at war.”

  I stood, rubbing my neck, so often abused of late. “As I was saying, Eben. The reason I saw no need to wake was because I also saw your dry bones being picked at by buzzards, and me riding away on my horse. I guess it could still turn out that way, couldn’t it?”

  His eyes widened briefly, contemplating the veracity of my vision, and then he scowled at me, a scowl laced with too much rage for his tender years.

  The day passed as the one before, hot, dry, grueling, and monotonous. Past the foothills was another hot basin, and another. It was the road to hell, and it afforded me no chance of slipping away. Even the hills were barren. There was nowhere to hide. It was little wonder that we passed no one. Who else would be out in this wasteland?

  By the third day I stank as badly as Griz, but there was no one to notice. They all stank too. Their faces were streaked with grime, so I assumed mine looked the same, all of us becoming filthy striped animals. I tasted grit in my mouth, felt it in my ears, grit everywhere, dry bits of hell blowing on the breeze, my hands blistering on the reins.

  I listened carefully to their grunting babble as we rode, trying to understand their words. Some were easy to decipher. Horse. Water. Shut up. The girl. Kill. But I didn’t let on that I was listening. In the evenings, as discreetly as possible, I searched the Vendan phrase book inside my bag for more words, but the book was basic and brief. Eat. Sit. Halt. Do not move.

  Finch often filled the time whistling or singing tunes. One of them made me take note—I recognized the melody. It was a silly song from my childhood, and it became another key to their Vendan babble as I compared his Vendan words to the ones I knew in Morrighese.

  A fool and his gold,

  Coin piled so high,

  Gathering and hoarding,

  It reached to the sky,

  But nary a coin,

  Did the fool ever spend,

  While his pile grew high,

  The fool only grew thin.

  Not a pittance for drink,

  Nor a pittance for bread,

  And one sunny day,

  The fool found himself dead.

  If only these fools appreciated a bit of coin, I’d be out of this blasted heat by now. Who was this Komizar who instilled loyalty in the face of riches? And just what did he do to traitors? Could it be worse than enduring this scorching purgatory? I wiped my forehead but felt only sticky grit.

  When even Finch fell silent, I passed the time thinking about my mother and her long journey from the Lesser Kingdom of Gastineux. I had never been there. It was in the far north, where winter lasted three seasons, white wolves ruled the forests, and summer was a brief blinding green, so sweet that its scent lingered all winter. At least that’s what Aunt Bernette said. Mother’s descriptions were far more succinct, but I saw her expressions as Aunt Bernette described their homeland, the creases forming at her eyes with both smile and sadness.

  Snow. I wondered what it felt like. Aunt Bernette said it could be both soft and hard, cold and hot. It stung and burned when the wind pelted it through the air, and it was a gentle cold feather when it drifted down in lazy circles from the sky. I couldn’t imagine it being so many opposite things, and I wondered if she had taken license with her story as Father always claimed. I couldn’t stop thinking of it.


  Maybe that was the smile and sadness I saw in my mother’s eyes, wanting to feel it just one more time. Touch it. Taste it. The way I wanted to taste Terravin just one more time. She’d left her homeland, traveling hundreds of miles when she was no more than my age. But I was certain her journey was nothing like the one I was on now. I looked out at the searing colorless landscape. No, nothing like this.

  I uncapped my canteen and took a drink.

  How I would ever get back to anywhere that was civilized now I wasn’t sure, but I knew I’d rather die lost in this wilderness than be on exhibit among Vendan animals—and they were animals. At night when we made camp, except for Kaden, they couldn’t even be bothered to walk behind a rock to relieve themselves. They laughed when I looked the other way. Last night they had roasted a snake that Malich killed with his hatchet, and then smacked and belched after each bite like pigs at a trough. Kaden ripped off a piece of the snake and offered it to me, but I refused it. It wasn’t the blood dripping down their fingers or the half-cooked snake that killed my appetite—it was their coarse vulgar noises. It was apparent very quickly, though, that Kaden was different. He was of them, but he wasn’t one of them. He still had truths he was hiding.

  With their chatter quieted, all I had heard for miles now was the maddening repetitive clop of hoof on sand and occasional body noises from Finch, who now rode on my other side instead of Eben.

  “You’re taking me all the way to Venda?” I said to Kaden.

  “Taking you halfway there would serve no purpose.”

  “That’s on the other side of the continent.”

  “Ah, so you royals know your geography after all.”

  It wasn’t worth the energy to swing my canteen at his head again. “I know a lot of things, Kaden, including the fact that trading convoys pass through the Cam Lanteux.”

  “The Previzi caravans? Your chances with them would be zero. No one gets within a hundred paces of their cargo and lives.”

  “There are the kingdom patrols.”

  “Not the way we’re going.” He was quick to quash every hope.

  “How long does it take to get to Venda?”

  “Fifty days, give or take a month. But with you along, twice that.”

  My canteen flew, hitting him like lead. He grabbed his head, and I got ready to swing again. He lunged at me, pulling me from my horse. We fell to the ground with a dull thud, and I swung again, this time with my fist, catching him in the jaw. I rolled and got to my knees, but he slammed me from behind, pinning me facedown against the sand.

  I heard the others laughing and hooting, heartily entertained by our scuffle.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Kaden hissed in my ear. His full weight pressed down on me. I closed my eyes, then squeezed them shut tightly, trying to swallow, trying to breathe. What’s the matter? Did that question really require an answer?

  The sand burned against my cheek. I pretended it was the sting of snow. I felt its wetness on my lashes, its feather-light touch trailing across my nose. What’s the matter? Nothing at all.

  * * *

  The wind had finally calmed. I listened to the crack an
d spit of the fire. We had stopped early tonight at the base of another range of hills. I climbed to a crag and watched the sun disappear, the sky still white hot, not a drop of swirling moisture to lend it color or depth. Kaden and I hadn’t spoken another word. The rest of the ride had been briefly punctuated by more laughter from the others as they tossed my canteen between them in mock terror, until Kaden yelled for them to stop. I stared straight ahead for the rest of the ride, never looking left or right. Not thinking of snow or home. Just hating myself for letting them see my wet cheeks. My own father had never seen me cry.

  “Food,” Kaden called to me. Another snake.

  I ignored him. They knew where I was. They knew I wouldn’t run. Not here. And I didn’t want to eat their belly-slithering snake that was probably full of sand too.

  Instead I watched the sky transform, the white melting to black, the stars so thick, so close, that here I thought maybe I could reach them. Maybe I could understand. What went wrong?

  All I had wanted was to undo what I had done, meet my duty, to make sure that nothing happened to Walther, that no more innocents like Greta and the baby would die. I had given up all that I loved to make that happen—Terravin, Berdi, Pauline, Rafe. But now here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, unable to help anyone, not even myself. I was crushed to the desert floor, my face ground into the sand. Laughed at. Ridiculed. Betrayed by someone I had trusted. More than trusted. I had cared about him.

  I swiped at my cheeks, forcing any more tears back.

  I looked up at the stars, glittering, alive, watching me. I’d get out of this somehow. I would. But I promised myself I’d expend no more effort fighting insults. I had to save my energy for more important pursuits. I’d have to learn to play their game, only play it better. It might take me a while, but I had fifty days to learn this game, because I was certain that if I crossed into Venda, I’d never see home again.

  “I brought you some food.”

  I turned and saw Kaden holding a chunk of meat speared on his knife.

  I looked back at the stars. “I’m not hungry.”

  “You have to eat something. You haven’t eaten all day.”

  “You forgot? I ate a mouthful of sand at midday. That was plenty.”

  I heard him exhale a tired breath. He came over and sat beside me, laying the meat and knife on the rock. He looked up at the stars too. “I’m not good at this, Lia. I live two separate lives, and usually one never meets the other.”

  “Don’t fool yourself, Kaden. You’re not living even one life. You’re an assassin. You feed on other people’s misery and steal lives that don’t belong to you.”

  He leaned forward, looking down at his feet. Even in the starlight, I could see his jaw clench, his cheek twitch.

  “I’m a soldier, Lia. That’s all.”

  “Then who were you in Terravin? Who were you when you loaded goods into the wagon for Berdi? When I tended your shoulder? When you pulled me close and danced with me? When I kissed your cheek in the meadow? Who were you then?”

  He turned to look directly at me, his lips half parted. His dark eyes narrowed. “I was only a soldier. That’s all I ever was.”

  When he couldn’t look me in the eye any longer, he stood. “Please eat,” he said quietly. “You’ll need your strength.” He reached down and pulled the knife from the meat, leaving the slab of snake sitting on the rock, and walked away.

  I looked down at the meat. I hated that he was right. I did need my strength. I would eat the snake, even if I choked on every gritty bite.

  Where did she go, Ama?

  She is gone, my child.

  Stolen, like so many others.

  But where?

  I lift the child’s chin. Her eyes are sunken with hunger.

  Come, let’s go find food together.

  But the child grows older, her questions not so easily turned away.

  She knew where to find food. We need her.

  And that’s why she’s gone. Why they stole her.

  You have the gift within you too, my child. Listen. Watch.

  We’ll find food, some grass, some grain.

  Will she be back?

  She is beyond the wall. She is dead to us now.

  No, she will not be back.

  My sister Venda is one of them now.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel


  “They call it the City of Dark Magic.”

  We stared at the ruins rising from the sands like sharp broken fangs.

  At least now I knew we weren’t in Morrighan anymore. “I know what it is,” I said to Kaden. “Royals hear stories too.” As soon as I saw the ruined city, I knew what it was. I’d heard it described many times. It lay just beyond the borders of Morrighan.

  I noticed the others had fallen silent. Griz stared ahead under thick scowling brows. “What’s the matter with them?” I asked.

  “The city. The magic. It raises their hackles,” Kaden said. A shrug followed his answer, and I knew he had no such reservations.

  “A sword is no good against spirits,” Finch whispered.

  “But the city has water,” Malich said, “and we need it.”

  I had heard many colorful stories about the dark magical city. It was said it was built in the middle of nowhere, a place of secrets where the Ancients could practice their magic and offer untold pleasures for a price. The streets had been made of gold, the fountains flowed with nectar, and sorceries of every kind were to be found. It was believed that spirits still jealously guarded the ruins and that was why so many of them were still standing.

  We continued to move forward at a guarded pace. As we got closer, I saw that the sands had scoured away most of the color, but occasional patches survived. A hint of red here, a sheen of gold there, a fragment of their ancient writing carved in a wall. There was no wholeness left to the city. Every one of the magical towers that had once reached to the sky had crumbled to some degree, but the ruins evoked the spirit of a city more than any ruins I had ever seen. You could imagine the Ancients moving about.

  Eben stared ahead, wide-eyed. “We keep our voices low as we pass through so we don’t arouse the dark magic and spirits.”

  Arouse spirits? I scanned the faces of my once fierce captors, all of them sitting forward in their saddles. I felt a smile ignite deep inside, hope, a small bit of power returning to me. With no weapons, I had to use whatever I could to stay alive, and sooner or later I had to convince them that I really did have the gift.

  I pulled on my reins, stopping my horse with a jolt. “Wait!” I said and I closed my eyes, my chin lifted to the air. I heard the others stop, the huff of their breaths, the quiet, the expectant pause.

  “What are you doing?” Kaden asked impatiently.

  I opened my eyes. “It’s the gift, Kaden. I can’t control when it comes.”

  His lips pulled tight, and his eyes narrowed. Mine narrowed right back.

  “What did you see?” Finch asked.

  I shook my head and made sure worry showed on my face. “It wasn’t clear. But it was trouble. I saw trouble ahead.”

  “What kind of trouble?” Malich asked.

  I sighed. “I don’t know. Kaden interrupted me.”

  The others glared at Kaden. “Idaro!” Griz grumbled. He clearly understood Morrighese, even if he didn’t speak it.

  Kaden tugged on his horse’s reins. “I don’t think we need to worry about—”

  “You’re the one who said she had the gift,” Eben pointed out.

  “As she does,” Kaden said through gritted teeth. “But I don’t see any trouble ahead. We’ll proceed cautiously.” He shot me a quick stern glance.

  I returned it with a stiff grin.

  I hadn’t asked to be part of this game. He couldn’t expect me to play by his rules. We continued down the main path that cut through the city. There was no street, gold or otherwise, to be seen, only the sand that was reclaiming as much of the city as it could, but you couldn
’t help being filled with awe at the grandeur of the ruins. The citadelle back home was immense. It had taken half a century to build and decades beyond that for expansions. It was the largest structure I knew of, but it was dwarfed by these silent, towering behemoths.

  Kaden whispered to me that in the middle of one of the ruins there was a natural spring and pool where I could wash up. I decided I would hold back on any more visions until I was at least able to bathe. We rode our horses between the ruins as far as we could, then tied them to the remains of marble pillars blocking our path and walked the rest of the way.

  It was more than a pool. It was a piece of magic, and I almost believed the spirits of the Ancients still tended it. Water bubbled from thick slabs of broken marble, running over the slick stone and splashing into a sparkling pool below that was protected on three sides by crumbling walls.

  I stared at it, lusting after the water as I had never lusted before. I didn’t just want to dip my hands in and wash my face. I wanted to fall in and feel every luscious drop kissing my body. Kaden saw me staring.

  “Give me your canteen. I’ll fill it and water your horse. Go ahead.”

  I looked at Griz and the others, splashing their faces and necks.

  “Don’t worry,” he said. “They won’t bathe much beyond that. You’ll have the pool to yourself.” His eyes grazed over me and then glanced back at Malich. “But I’d leave your clothes on.”

  I acknowledged his prudent suggestion with a single nod. I’d bathe with a thick winter cloak on right now if that were my only option. He went to fill the canteens, and I pulled off my boots. I stepped in, my feet sinking into the cool white sand that lined the bottom, and I thought I was in heaven. I dipped down, sinking below the surface, swimming to the other side, where the water splashed down from the broken slabs like a waterfall. When the others left to go water their horses, I quickly unbuttoned my shirt and pulled if off along with my trousers. I swam in my underwear and chemise, rubbing away the dirt and sand that had become ingrained in every pore and crevice of my body. I dipped my head below the water again and scrubbed my scalp, feeling the grit wash loose. When I surfaced, I took a deep cleansing breath. Never before had water felt this exquisitely purifying. Hell wasn’t made of fire but of blowing dust and sand.

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