The kiss of deception, p.24
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.24

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  I quickly swished my trousers in the water to wash the dirt from them and then put them back on. I was about to grab my shirt and wash it too when I heard heavy rumbling. I turned my head to the side, trying to discern what the sound was and where it came from, and then I heard the subtle rhythm. Horses.

  I was confused. It sounded like many more than just our six—and then I heard the blast of a horn. I was stunned momentarily. Oh, blessed gods! A patrol!

  I ran from the pool, scrambling over rock and ruin. “Here!” I screamed. “Here!” The rumbling got louder, and I ran through the narrow pathways, pieces of broken rubble bruising and cutting my bare feet. “Here!” I yelled over and over as I ran toward the main road that wound through the middle of the city. It was a maze to get there, but I knew I was close as the rumbling grew louder, and then I caught a glimpse through a narrow pathway of horses galloping past. “Here!” I screamed again. I was just about to reach the road when I felt a hand clamp around my mouth and I was dragged backward into a dark corner.

  “Quiet, Lia! Or we’ll all die!”

  I struggled against Kaden’s hand, trying to open my mouth to bite him, but his hand firmly cupped my chin. He pulled me to the ground and held me tight against his chest, huddling us both in the corner. Even with my mouth clamped shut, I screamed, but it wasn’t loud enough to be heard over the roar of hooves.

  “It’s a patrol from Dalbreck!” he whispered. “They won’t know who you are! They’d kill us first and ask questions later.”

  No! I struggled against his grip. It could be Walther’s patrol! Or another! They wouldn’t kill me! But then I remembered the flash of color as the horses flew by. Blue and black, the banners of Dalbreck.

  I heard the rumbling fade, softer and softer until it was only a flutter, and then it was gone.

  They were gone.

  I slumped against Kaden’s chest. His hand slid from my mouth.

  “We have to stay a little longer until we’re sure they’ve left,” he whispered in my ear. With the thunder of the horses gone, I became acutely aware of his arms still around me.

  “They wouldn’t have killed me,” I said quietly.

  He leaned closer, his lips brushing my ear in a hushed warning. “Are you certain? You look like one of us now, and it doesn’t matter—man or woman—they kill us. We’re only barbarians to them.”

  Was I certain? No. I knew very little about Dalbreck and their military, only that Morrighan had had skirmishes and disputes with them over the centuries, but certainly my current situation wasn’t any better.

  Kaden helped me to my feet. My hair still dripped. My wet trousers twisted around me, covered in grit again. But as I looked down at my bruised and bleeding feet, two thoughts consoled me.

  One, I at least knew that patrols sometimes ventured this far. I wasn’t out of their reach yet. And two, there was trouble, just as I had predicted there would be.

  Oh, the power that would give me now.



  I bent down and looked at the dark spot on the ground.

  I rubbed the dirt between my fingers.


  I would kill them.

  I would kill every one of them with my bare hands if they had harmed her, and I’d save Kaden for last.

  I pushed twice as hard, trying to stay on their trail while I still had light. The ground became rocky, and it was harder to follow their tracks. I had to slow my pace, and it seemed that only minutes had passed before the sun became a fiery orange ball in the sky. It was going down too fast. I pushed on as far as I could, but I couldn’t track them in the dark.

  I stopped on an elevated knoll and built a fire in case Sven and the others rode in the night. If not, my cold campfire would be easy to spot by day when they tracked me. I stabbed at the fire, poking it with a stick, and wondered if Lia was warm, or cold, or hurt. For the first time since I’d known of her existence, when the marriage was proposed by my father, I hoped she did have the gift and could see me coming.

  “Hold on,” I whispered into the flames, and I prayed she’d do whatever she had to, to stay strong and survive until we came.

  Even if I caught up, I knew I’d have to hang back until the others arrived. I had been trained in countless military tactics and was well aware of what the odds of one against five were. Except for an opportune ambush, I couldn’t risk Lia’s safety by going in there half cocked ready to take their heads off.

  What was she doing now? Had he hurt her? Was he feeding her? Did he—

  I snapped the branch in two.

  I remembered the words he spit at me when we wrestled on the log. Give it up, Rafe. You’re going to fall.

  No, Kaden.

  Not this time.


  The flat white sands disappeared and were replaced by sand the color of burnt sky—ochres of every hue. It was still blistering hot, and the air shimmered in waves, but now the landscape offered a variety of rocks and unearthly formations.

  We passed enormous boulders with large round holes in them, as if a giant snake had slithered through, and still others teetering precariously as though they had been stacked by a colossal hand. If I was ever to believe in a world of magic and giants, it would be here. This was their realm. Sometimes we’d reach a high ridge and see for miles into multicolored canyons so deep the water that trailed through them became thin green ribbons.

  It made me wonder and ache with the same feeling that a black sky dusted with glittering stars did. I had never known of this peculiar world. So much lay beyond the borders of Morrighan.

  My captors were still crude and hostile, and yet if I turned my head a certain way and paused, my lashes fluttering like I was seeing something, I delighted in how I caught their attention. They would stir in their saddles and look across the horizon with dark brooding glances. Kaden would direct his dark glances at me. He knew I played on their fears, and maybe he worried about the power that gave me, but there was nothing he could say or do about it. I used this sway over them sparingly, though, because I hoped a time would come when it would serve me better than in long stretches of emptiness where there was no apparent escape. At some point, maybe it would open a door for me to flee.

  I kept track of days, scratching lines into my leather saddle with a sharp rock. I didn’t care about their tack, only about how much time I had left to find a way out of their grasp. It seemed they were deliberately taking me on the most lonely, desolate stretches imaginable. Was all of the Cam Lanteux like this? But if there had been one strategic miscalculation like the one they had made at the City of Dark Magic, there would be another, and the next time I’d be ready for it. In the same way their eyes scanned the horizon for unexpected visitors, so did mine.

  I tried not to think about Rafe, but after hours of the sameness, hours of worrying about Pauline, more hours of assuring myself that she was just fine, hours of wondering about Walther and where he was headed and if he was all right, hours of fighting the knot in my throat thinking about Greta and the baby, my mind inevitably circled back to Rafe.

  He was probably home now, wherever that was, resuming the life he once had. I understand about duty. But did he still think about me? Did he see me in his dreams the way I saw him? Did he relive our moments together the way I did? Then like dark, burrowing vermin, other thoughts would eat through me and I’d wonder, Why didn’t he try to change my mind? Why did he let me go so easily? Was I just one more girl on the road from here to there, another summer dalliance, something to be bragged about in a tavern over a tankard of ale? If Pauline could be fooled, could I be too?

  I shook my head, trying to extinguish the doubt. No, not Rafe. What we’d had was real.

  “What’s wrong now?” Kaden asked. The others were staring at me too.

  I looked at him, confused. I hadn’t said anything.

  “You were shaking your head.”

  They were watching me more carefully than I even knew. I sig
hed. “Nothing.” This time I wasn’t in the mood to play with their fears.

  * * *

  The red cliffs and rock eventually softened to foothills again, but this time there was a glimmer of green on them that deepened and grew as we traveled down a long, winding valley between two mountain ranges. The beginnings of forest appeared, a gradual unveiling of yet another world. It felt as if I had already traveled to the ends of the earth, and we still had a month to go? I remembered looking out across the bay at Terravin to the line separating sea and sky and wondering, Could anyone really travel so far that they might not find their way home again? The bright homes that surrounded the bay protected loved ones from being lost at sea. What would protect me? How would I ever find my way back?

  It was getting dark. The mountains on either side grew higher, and the forest around us became thicker and taller, but I caught sight of something at the far end of the valley that was almost as glorious as a patrol.

  Clouds. Dark, furious, and luscious. Their churning blackness marched our way like a thundering army. Relief from the relentless sun at last!

  “Sevende! Ara te mats!” Griz bellowed and kicked his horse into a gallop. The others did the same.

  “Afraid of a little rain?” I said to Kaden.

  “This rain,” he answered.

  * * *

  We lashed the horses to timbers in the semishelter of ruin and trees. I wiped the rain from my eyes to see what I was doing. “Go inside with the others!” Kaden yelled over the roar of wind and the deafening thrash of forest. “I’ll unsaddle the horses and bring your gear!”

  The cracks of thunder chattered through my teeth. We were already drenched. I turned to follow the others into the dark ruin tucked close to the mountain. The wind tore at my hair, and I had to hold it back to find my way. Rain fell through most of the structure, but lightning lit the bony skeleton and revealed a few dry corners and nooks. Griz was already trying to start a fire in one of the stony alcoves on the far side of the cavern. Finch and Eben took up residence in another one. It was once an enormous dwelling, a temple, as my brothers and I would have called it, but it didn’t feel holy tonight.

  “This way,” Malich said, and pulled me beneath a low overhang of stone. “It’s dry here.”

  Yes, it was dry, but it was also very dark and very cramped. He didn’t let go of my arm. Instead, his hand slid from my arm up to my shoulder. I tried to step back out into the rain, but he grabbed my hair.

  “Stay,” he said and yanked me back. “You’re not a princess anymore. You’re a prisoner. Remember that.” His other hand reached out and slid across my ribs.

  My blood went cold. I was either going to lose a chunk of my scalp, or he was going to lose a chunk of his manhood. I preferred the latter. My fingers tensed, ready to maim, but Kaden walked in and called out, looking for me. Malich immediately released me.

  “Over here,” I called back.

  Griz’s fire on the far side of the cavern caught and lit the ghostly interior. Kaden saw us in the dark niche. He walked over and handed me my saddlebag.

  “She can sleep in here with me tonight,” Malich said.

  Kaden looked at him, a golden line of light illuminating his cheekbone and dripping hair. The vein at his temple was raised. “No,” he said simply.

  There was a long silent moment. Kaden didn’t blink. Though he was of equal size and strength to Kaden, Malich seemed to have a reverence if not fear of him. Were assassins higher in the pecking order of barbarians, or was it something else?

  “Suit yourself,” Malich said and pushed me toward Kaden. I stumbled into his chest, tripping over rubble. Kaden caught me and lifted me back to my feet.

  He found another dry niche far from the others and kicked away some rock to make a place to lie down. He dropped the bedrolls and his bag. There would be no dinner tonight. The weather made it impossible to gather or hunt. I took another swig of water to quell the rumble in my stomach. I could easily have eaten one of the horses.

  With his back to me, Kaden unbuttoned his soaked shirt and pulled it off, hanging it from an outcropping of stone to dry. I stared at his back. Even in the dim firelight, I could see the marks across it. Multiple long scars that stretched from his shoulder blades to his lower back. He turned and saw me staring. I drew in a breath. His chest had more, long slashes that traveled crosswise down to his ribs.

  “I guess you had to see sooner or later,” he said.

  I swallowed. I remembered how he refused to take his shirt off at the games. Now I understood why.

  “Some of your victims fought back?”

  “On my back? Hardly. Don’t worry, these scars are old and long healed.” He laid out the bedrolls and motioned to the space beside him, waiting for me to lie down. I moved forward awkwardly and lay as close to the wall as possible.

  I heard him stretch out next to me and felt his eyes on my back. I turned to face him. “If you didn’t get the scars from your work, how did you come by them?”

  He was propped up on one elbow, and his other hand absently stroked the lines on his ribs. His eyes were unsettled as if he was recalling each lash, but his face remained calm, well practiced at burying his secrets. “It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore. Go to sleep, Lia.” He rolled to his back and closed his eyes. I stared at his chest and watched it rise in slow careful breaths.

  It mattered.

  Two hours later, I was still awake, thinking about Kaden and the violent life he led, more violent than I even knew. The scars frightened me. Not their appearance but where they had come from. He said they were old and long healed. How old could they be? He was only a couple of years older than I was. I wondered if Eben had scars beneath his shirt too. What did the Vendans do to their children? What would they do to me?

  For the first time in what seemed an eternity, I was chilled. I was soaked to the skin, but I had nothing else to put on. The hard ride from Civica to Terravin had been luxurious compared with this. The thunder continued to boom, but Kaden slept soundly, oblivious to the noise. He hadn’t shackled me at night since we left the City of Dark Magic, probably figuring my cut and bruised feet were enough to keep me from traveling far. That had been true—at first. They were mostly healed now, but I made sure I continued to limp generously enough to make him think otherwise.

  The wind and rain still raged, and the thunder vibrated through me. It was all so deafening it easily masked the roar of Griz’s snores. I rolled over and eyed the saddlebag lying at Kaden’s feet. My pulse sped. My knife was still in there. I would need it. The mad beating of rain could mask a lot more than snores.

  My chest pounded as I sat up slowly. With the forest around us, there were places to hide now, but could I ride an unsaddled skittish horse in a furious storm? Just trying to get up on its back without stirrups would be a challenge if I could manage it at all. But if I could lead one of them to a downed log …

  I got to my feet, crouching at first, and then I stood, waiting to see if anyone noticed. When they didn’t, I took a deep breath and walked to Kaden’s feet, then stooped, never taking my eyes from him as I carefully lifted his saddlebag. I was afraid to even swallow. The storm covered any sound I made, but I’d rummage through his bag for my knife once I was outside. I took a shaky cautious step—

  Don’t go. Not yet.

  I stopped. My throat pinched shut. My feet were ready to run, but a voice as clear as my own warned me not to. My fist shook, tightly clenching the bag.

  Not yet.

  I stared at Kaden, unable to move. Damn whatever spoke to me. I forced air into my lungs and slowly, against every other demand screaming in my head, crouched again, inch by inch, to set the saddlebag back at his feet. And then, just as slowly, I stepped back and lay down beside him. I stared up at the stones above us, my eyes wet with frustration.

  “Wise move,” Kaden whispered, without ever opening his eyes.



  I was twelve when Sve
n began teaching me to track. I had complained bitterly, preferring to spend my time training with a sword or learning maneuvers on the back of a horse. I couldn’t be bothered with the quiet, careful work of a tracker. I was a soldier. Or I was going to be one.

  He had shoved me, sending me sprawling to the ground. The enemy doesn’t always march in great armies, boy, he said with contempt. Sometimes the enemy is just one person who will bring down a kingdom. He had glared down his long, sharp nose at me, daring me to get up. Shall I tell your father you want to be that person who fails the kingdom because you only want to swing a long stick of metal? I scowled but shook my head. I didn’t want to be that person. I had been tossed aside early, given over to Sven to make a man of me. He had zealously attended to his job. He gave me a hand up, and I listened.

  Sven knew the ways of the wilderness, the ways of wind, soil, rock, and grass, and how to read the tracks the enemy left behind. The clues were in more than just the litter of fires or excrement. In more than blood dripped onto soil. In more than footprints or horse tracks. You were lucky if you had those. There were also trampled weeds. A snapped twig. The barest bit of shine across vegetation that had been brushed by a shoulder or horse. Even rocky ground left clues. A pebble crushed into the soil. Gravel mounded in irregular patterns. A ridge of dirt caused by a newly pitched stone. Dust tossed by hoof and wind where it didn’t belong. But right now I pondered his long-ago instruction, rain is both friend and foe, depending on when it comes.

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