The kiss of deception, p.26
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.26

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Listen and it will find you.

  I will find you.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel


  I lay on my stomach in the meadow, carefully turning the brittle pages of the ancient manuscript. I had shooed off Eben under threat of his life. Now he maintained a safe distance, playing with the wolves and showering them with something I hadn’t thought he even possessed—affection.

  Apparently he had been burdened with the task of watching me while Kaden went to pay his respects to the God of Grain. How great this god must be that he would entrust me to Eben, though I was sure Kaden knew I was no fool. I needed to regain some strength before I parted ways with them. I would bide my time. For now.

  I also felt the pull of something else.

  There was more I needed here besides food and rest.

  The words of the old manuscript were a mystery to me, though some I could guess at, given their frequency and positions. Many of the words seemed to have the same roots as Morrighese, but I wasn’t sure, because several of the letters were formed differently. A simple key would have helped enormously—the kind the Scholar had in abundance. I had showed it to Reena and the others, but the language was as foreign to them as it was to me. An ancient language. Even on the page, I could see that it was written differently from the way they spoke. Their words were breathy and smooth. These had a harsher cadence. I marveled at how quickly things were lost, even words and language. This may have been written by one of their ancestors, but it was no longer understood by the Tribe of Gaudrel. I touched the letters, handwritten with a careful pen. This book was meant to last the ages. What did the Scholar want with it? Why had he hidden it? I traced my fingers over the letters again.

  Meil au ve avanda. Ve beouvoir. Ve anton.

  Ais evasa levaire, Ama. Parai ve siviox.

  Ei revead aida shameans. Aun spirad. Aun narrashen. Aun divesad etrevaun.

  Ei útan petiar che oue, bamita.

  How would I ever learn what the book said if Gaudrel’s own people didn’t know? The Tribe of Gaudrel. Why had I never heard of this book before? To us they had been only vagabonds, rootless people with no history, but they clearly had one the Scholar wanted hidden. I closed the book and stood, brushing bits of grass from my skirt, watching the meadow go from green to gold as a last sliver of sun dropped behind a mountain.

  A haunting silence pressed down on me. Here.

  I closed my eyes, feeling a familiar ache. The bitter need swelled inside. I felt like a child again, staring into a black starlit sky, everything I wanted beyond my reach.

  “So you think you have the gift.”

  I whirled and found myself looking into the deeply lined face of the old woman, Dihara. I blinked, caught off guard. “Who told you that?”

  She shrugged. “The stories … they travel.” She carried a spinning wheel and a burlap sack hung over her shoulder. She walked past me, the tall grass shivering in her wake as she carried the wheel to where the meadow met the river. She faced one direction then the other, as if listening for something, and set the wheel down in a clearing where the grass was shorter. She dropped the sack from her shoulder to the ground.

  I ambled closer but still kept some distance, unsure if she’d welcome my presence. I stared at her back, noticing that her long silver braids almost touched the ground when she sat.

  “You may come near,” she said. “The wheel will not bite. Nor will I.”

  For an old woman, she had very good hearing.

  I sat on the ground a few paces away. How did she know about my supposed gift? Had Finch or Griz told her about me? “What do you know of the gift?” I asked.

  She grunted. “That you know little of it.”

  She didn’t get that information from Griz or Finch, since they were thoroughly convinced of my abilities, but I couldn’t argue with her conclusion. I sighed.

  “It’s not your fault,” she said as her foot pushed the treadle of the wheel. “The walled in, they starve it just as the Ancients did.”

  “The walled in? What do you mean?”

  Her foot paused on the treadle, and she turned to look at me. “Your kind. You’re surrounded by the noise of your own making and you attend only to what you can see, but that’s not the way of the gift.”

  I looked into her sunken eyes, blue irises so faded that they were nearly white. “You have the gift?” I questioned.

  “Don’t be surprised. The gift’s not so magical or rare.”

  I shrugged, not wanting to argue with an old woman but knowing otherwise from the teachings of Morrighan and my own experience. It was magical, a gift from the gods to the chosen Remnant and their descendants. That included many of the Lesser Kingdoms, but not the rootless vagabonds.

  She raised one eyebrow, scrutinizing me. She stood, stepping away from her wheel, and turned to face the camp. “Stand up,” she ordered. “Look over there. What do you see?”

  I did as she instructed and saw Eben playfully wrestling with the wolves. “The wolves don’t take to others the way they do Eben,” she said. “His need is deep, and there is a knowing between them. He nurtures it even now, making it stronger, but it is a way that has no name. It is a way of trust. It is mysterious but not magical.”

  I stared at Eben, trying to understand what she was saying.

  “There are many such ways that can only be seen or heard with a different kind of eye and ear. The gift, as you would call it, is a way like the way of Eben.”

  She went back to her work, as if her explanation was complete, though it was still a puzzle to me. She pulled raw uncarded wool from her bag, and then something with longer straight fibers.

  “What do you spin?” I asked.

  “The wool of sheep, the fur of llama, the flax of the field. The gifts of the world. They come in many colors and strengths. Close your eyes. Listen.”

  “Listen to you spin?”

  She shrugged.


  The last arm of sunlight had disappeared, and the sky above the mountains tinged purple. I closed my eyes and listened to her spin, to the whir of wheel, the click of treadle, the rustle of grass, the gurgle of brook, the low hum of wind through pine, and that was all. It was peaceful but not profound and I became impatient. I opened my eyes.

  “You said stories travel. Do you expect me to believe that my story traveled here to you?”

  “I expect that you’ll believe what you will. I’m only an old woman who needs to return to her spinning.” She hummed, turning her face toward the wind.

  “If you believe in such ways and my story traveled true, then you know it was the truth when I said I was brought here against my will. You’re not Vendan. Will you help me escape from them?”

  She looked over her shoulder, back at the camp and the children playing outside a wagon. The shadows of twilight deepened the lines of her face. “You’re right, I’m not Vendan, but neither am I Morrighese,” she said. “Would you have me interfere in the wars of men and bring about the young ones’ deaths?” She nodded her head toward the children. “That is how we survive. We have no armies, and our few weapons are only for hunting. We’re left alone because we don’t take sides but welcome all with food and drink and a warm fire. I cannot give you what you ask.”

  I was grateful for the food and clean clothes, but I was still hoping for more. I needed more. I wasn’t simply a traveler on a long journey. I was a prisoner. I pulled my shoulders back and turned to leave. “Then your ways are not useful to me.”

  I was several yards away when she called to me. “But I can help you in other ways. Come here tomorrow, and I’ll tell you more about the gift. I promise you will find that useful.”

  Did I really have time for an old woman’s stories? I had plenty of my own from Morrighan. I wasn’t even sure I would be here tomorrow. By then I’d be rested, and my opportunity to leave might arise. I didn’t intend to be dragged much farther across this wilderness. My chance would come with or w
ithout her help.

  “I’ll try,” I said and walked back toward camp.

  She stopped me again, her voice softer. “The others, they couldn’t tell you what your book said because they don’t read. They were shamed to tell you.” Her pale eyes squinted. “Even we are guilty of not nurturing gifts, and the gifts that aren’t fed shrivel and die.”

  * * *

  When I got back to camp, Eben was still watching me, true to his task even while he lay with the wolves as if he were one of them. I heard raucous talk and laughter coming from the large tent in the center of camp. The respects seemed to have escalated to the jovial variety. Reena and Natiya greeted me.

  “Do you want to go into your carvachi to rest first or join the others and eat?” Reena asked.

  “Carvachi? What do you mean?”

  Natiya chirped up like an eager little bird, “The blond one named Kaden, he bought Reena’s carvachi for you so you could sleep in a real bed.”

  “He what?”

  Reena explained that Kaden had only rented it for whatever time I was here, and she would sleep in the tent or another carvachi. “But mine is the finest. It has a thick down mattress. You will sleep well there.”

  I started to protest, but she insisted, saying the coin he gave her would be useful when they traveled south. She needed it more than she needed a carvachi to herself, and there would be many more nights alone ahead of her.

  I wasn’t sure which I wanted more—another good meal or to lie on a real mattress with a roof over my head, far from the snores and body noises of men. I chose the meal first, remembering that my strength was important.

  We filed into the tent along with three other women who had just brought some trays of ribs from the fire. My Vendan escorts sat on pillows in the middle of the tent, along with the five men of the camp. Their long soak in the hot springs had washed the grime away and brought color back to their skin. Griz’s cheeks gleamed pink. They drank from ram horns and ate with their fingers, though I had already seen that utensils were available. You might be able to offer civilization to a barbarian, but that didn’t mean they would partake of it.

  None of them seemed to notice me enter, and then I realized they didn’t know it was me. With a bath, a beaded scarf on my head, and the colorful clothes, I wasn’t the filthy wild girl who had arrived in camp earlier today. The women set two of the trays down in front of the men, then took the third to the corner where the pillows were piled high and sat there together. I remained standing, staring at my captors, who feasted and laughed, throwing their heads back with bellows like they were in a king’s court without a care in the world. It was a nettle in my saddle. I had a care—a little thing called my life. I wanted them to have a care too.

  I groaned, and the laughter stopped. Heads turned. I fluttered my lashes as if I saw something. Kaden stared at me, trying to regain focus, and he finally realized who I was. His face flushed, and he cocked his head to the side, as if he was taking a second look to decide whether it was really me.

  “What is it?” Finch asked.

  My eyes rolled upward, and I grimaced.

  “Osa azen te kivada,” Griz said to the man at his side. The gift.

  Malich said nothing, but his eyes roamed leisurely over my new attire.

  Kaden scowled. “What now?” he asked, short on patience.

  I waited, poised, until they all sat a little higher.

  “Nothing,” I said unconvincingly and went to sit with the women. I felt like I was back in the tavern using a new set of skills to control the unruly patrons. Gwyneth would love this one. My performance was enough to considerably dampen their spirits, at least for a while, and that was enough to brighten mine. I ate my fill, remembering that each bite might be the one that sustained me through another mile in the wilderness once I was free of them.

  I tried to appear engaged in the women’s talk, but I listened intently to the men as they resumed their conversation. They continued to eat and drink, mostly drink, and their lips became looser.

  “Ade ena ghastery?”

  “Jah!” Malich said and tossed his head in my direction. “Osa ve verait andel acha ya sah kest!”

  They all laughed, but then their talk turned quieter and more secretive, only a few words whispered loudly enough for me to hear.

  “Ne ena hachetatot chadaros … Mias wei … Te ontia lo besadad.”

  They spoke of trails and patrols, and I leaned closer, straining to hear more.

  Kaden caught me listening. He fixed his gaze on me and said quite loudly over the others, “Osa’r e enand vopilito Gaudrella. Shias wei hal … le diamma camman ashea mika e kisav.” The men hooted, lifting their horns to Kaden, then went back to their conversations, but Kaden’s eyes remained focused on me, unblinking, waiting for me to react.

  My heart skipped. I worked to show no reaction, to maintain my naïve indifferent stare and pretend I didn’t know what he said, but I finally had to look away, feeling my face grow hot. When someone has announced that he thinks you make a beautiful vagabond and he wants to kiss you, it’s hard to feign ignorance. He chose the perfect words for his little test to confirm his suspicions. I looked back at my food, trying to will the color from my cheeks. I finished my meal without looking in his direction again and then asked Reena if she could show me to her wagon.

  * * *

  As we approached the carvachi at the end of the camp, I noticed Dihara walking away from it. On the steps was a small book, a very old one, and with a quick glance, I saw that it was all handwritten. I scooped it up and let Reena show me into her colorful wagon.

  It seemed far larger inside than it appeared from the outside. She showed me every convenience it contained, but the biggest attraction was the bed at the back. Lush with color, pillows, draperies, and tasseled trim, it looked like something from a storybook. I pushed down on the mattress, and my hand disappeared into a soft magical cloud.

  Reena grinned. She was pleased with my reaction. I couldn’t resist running my hand along the hanging golden tassels and watching them shiver at my touch. My eyes grazed every detail of the bed like I was a starving sheep let loose in a pasture of clover.

  She gave me a nightgown to wear and left, offering her own unique blessing as she went down the steps, knocking the door frame with her knuckles. “May the gods grant you a still heart, heavy eyes, and angels guarding your door.”

  As soon as she left, I plopped down on the mattress, promising myself I would never again take a soft bed for granted, nor a roof over my head. I was beyond exhausted, but I didn’t want to sleep yet, preferring instead to immerse myself in the luxury of the carvachi. I looked at the numerous trinkets Reena had hung on the walls, including several of the strange ribbed flagons of the Ancients, one of the few artifacts still found in abundance.

  I wondered about all the lands this small band of nomads had traveled through, many more places than I could even imagine, though it seemed like I had seen half the continent by now. I thought about my father, who never left Civica. He didn’t even visit half his own realm of Morrighan, much less the vast territories beyond. Of course, he did have his Eyes of the Realm to convey the world to him. Spies. They’re everywhere, Lia.

  Not here. One good thing about being in this far-flung wilderness was that I was at least out of the clutches of the Chancellor and Scholar. It wasn’t likely that a bounty hunter would ever find me here.

  But neither would Rafe.

  It hit me afresh that I’d never see him again. The good ones don’t run away, Lia. He hadn’t exactly run, but he had seemed ready to move on with his life. It didn’t take much to convince him that I had to go. I had brooded over his reaction beyond reason. I was too numb and grieved at the time to fully take it in, but I had had a lot of time to think about it since. Reflection, my mother always called it when we were ordered to our bedchambers for some perceived infraction. My reflections told me he was grieved too. Let me think. But then just as quickly he had said, I’ll meet you for on
e last good-bye. His grieving was short-lived. Mine was not.

  I had tried not to think about him after leaving Terravin, but I couldn’t control my dreams. In the middle of the night, I would feel his lips brushing mine, his arms strong around me, his whispers in my ear, our bodies pressed close, his eyes looking into mine as if I was all that mattered in the world to him.

  I shook my head and sat up. As Kaden had said, it wasn’t good to dwell on maybes. Maybes could be twisted into things that never really existed. For Rafe I was probably already a distant memory.

  I had to concentrate on the present, the real and true. I grabbed the thin, soft nightgown Reena had let me borrow and put it on. A nightgown was another luxury I would never again take for granted.

  I browsed the book Dihara had left for me and curled up on the bed with it. It appeared to be a child’s primer in Gaudrian to teach several of the kingdoms’ languages, including Morrighese and Vendan. I compared it to the book I had stolen from the Scholar. The languages weren’t exactly the same, just as I suspected. Ve Feray Daclara au Gaudrel was hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years older, but the primer revealed what some of the strange letters were, and there were enough similarities to the present language that I could translate some words with confidence. My fingers gently slid over the page as I read it, feeling the centuries hidden within.

  Journey’s end. The promise. The hope.

  Tell me again, Ama. About the light.

  I search my memories. A dream. A story. A blurred remembrance.

  I was smaller than you, child.

  The line between truth and sustenance unravels. The need. The hope. My own grandmother telling stories to fill me because there was nothing more. I look at this child, windlestraw, a full stomach not even visiting her dreams. Hopeful. Waiting. I pull her thin arms, gather the feather of flesh into my lap.

  Once upon a time, my child, there was a princess no bigger than you. The world was at her fingertips. She commanded, and the light obeyed. The sun, moon, and stars knelt and rose at her touch. Once upon a time …

  Gone. Now there is only this golden-eyed child in my arms. That is what matters. And the journey’s end. The promise. The hope.

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