The kiss of deception, p.27
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.27

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  Come, my child. It’s time to go.

  Before the scavengers come.

  The things that last. The things that remain. The things I dare not speak to her.

  I’ll tell you more as we walk. About before.

  Once upon a time …

  It seemed more like a diary or a tale to be told around a campfire—an embellished story of a princess who commanded the light? But it was also a sad tale of hunger. Were Gaudrel and this child sojourners? The first vagabonds? And who or what were the scavengers? Why would the Scholar be afraid of a storyteller? Unless Gaudrel told more than stories to this child. Maybe that was what the rest of the book would reveal.

  As much as I wanted to keep studying the puzzling words, my eyes were closing against my will. I set the books aside and was rising to turn off the lantern when I heard stumbling on the steps outside and Kaden burst through the door. He tripped and grabbed the wall to regain his balance.

  “What are you doing?” I demanded.

  “Making sure you’re comfortable.” His head bobbed, and his words were slow and slurred.

  I moved forward to push him back out, which looked to be a simple task, but he slammed the door shut and pushed me up against it. He leaned against the door, pinning me between his arms, and looked at me, his pupils large, his dark eyes trying to focus.

  “You’re drunk,” I said.

  He blinked. “Maybe.”

  “There’s no maybe about it.”

  He grinned. “It’s tradition. I can’t insult my hosts. You understand about tradition, don’t you, Lia?”

  “Do you always get this stinking drunk when you come here?”

  His sloppy grin faded, and he leaned closer. “Not always. Never.”

  “What’s the matter? You’re feeling guilty this time and hope the God of Grain will absolve you?”

  His brows pulled down. “I don’t feel guilty about anything. I’m a soldier and you’re a … a … you’re one of them. A royal. You’re all the same.”

  “And you know so many.”

  A snarl crept across his lip. “You and your visions. You think I don’t know what you’re doing?”

  I was doing exactly what he would do in my position—trying to survive. Did he expect to drag me across the continent and have me politely follow?

  I smiled. “They don’t know what I’m doing. That’s all that matters. And you won’t tell them.”

  He brought his face closer to mine. “Don’t be so sure. You’re— I’m one of them. I’m Vendan. Don’t forget that.”

  How could I forget? But it seemed useless to argue with him. He could barely speak without stumbling over his words—and his face was getting far too close to mine.

  “Kaden, you need to—”

  “You’re too smart for your own good, you know that? You knew what I said in there. You know what all of us say—”

  “Your barbaric gibberish? How would I know? I don’t even care. Get out, Kaden!” I tried to push him away, but he slumped against me, his face buried in my hair, every muscle of his body pressing close to mine. I couldn’t breathe.

  “I heard you,” he whispered in my ear. “That night. I heard you tell Pauline that you found me attractive.”

  His hand reached up and touched my hair. He gathered the strands in his hand and squeezed them, and then he whispered into my ear the same words he’d said in the tent—and more. My temples pounded. His breath was hot on my cheek as he spoke, and his lips brushed my neck, lingering.

  He leaned back, and I caught my breath. “You’re not—” He swayed, his eyes losing focus. “For your own good too.…” He stumbled to the side, catching the wall. “Now I have to sleep on—lookout,” he said, pushing me aside. “I’m going to sleep right outside your wagon. Because I don’t trust you. Lia. You’re too—” His eyelids drooped. “And now Malich.”

  He fell back against the door, his eyes closed, and he slid to the floor, still sitting upright. All I had to do was open the door and he’d tumble out backward, but with my luck, he’d break his neck going down the steps, and I’d be left with Malich to deal with.

  I stared at him passed out, his head lolling to the side. Some protection he’d be against Malich, but the whole lot of them were probably just as stupid drunk by now.

  I pulled the lace curtain aside and opened the shuttered window. Now might be an opportune time to run if they were all like this, but I saw Malich, Griz, and Finch over near the horses. They still looked sure enough on their feet. Maybe Kaden had been telling the truth and he wasn’t used to so much drink. At the tavern, he had always been careful and composed, never having more than two ciders. I could drink that many without feeling a thing. What had made him drink so much tonight?

  I closed the shutter and looked back at Kaden, his mouth hanging open. I smiled, thinking about how his head would feel in the morning. I grabbed a pillow from Reena’s bed and threw it on the floor next to him, then pushed on his shoulder. He fell onto the pillow, never stirring.

  It was true. I had told Pauline that I thought he was attractive. He was fit, muscular, and as Gwyneth pointed out more than once, very easy on the eyes. I had also shared that I found his demeanor captivating, grave and calming at the same time. He had intrigued me. But Pauline and I were inside the cottage when we had talked about him. Had he been spying on us? Listening at the window? He’s an assassin, I reminded myself. What else should I expect? I tried to remember the other things Pauline and I had talked about. My gods, what else had he heard?

  I sighed. I couldn’t worry about that now.

  I crawled onto the thick mattress and pulled one of Reena’s colorful quilts over me. I turned on my side, looking at Kaden, wondering why he hated royals so. But it was clear he didn’t really hate me, just the idea of who I was, just as I hated the idea of who he was: It made me think how different everything might have been if we had both been born in Terravin.

  CHAPTER FIFTY-FIVE

  I watched Dihara for the better part of an hour from the window before I stepped over the still-sleeping Kaden and left the wagon to approach her. She sat on a stool near the fire in the center of camp brushing her long silver hair and weaving it back into braids. Next she rubbed a yellow balm into her elbows and knuckles. Her movements were slow and methodical, as if she had done this every morning for a thousand years. That was almost how old she looked, but her shoulders weren’t hunched, and she was certainly still strong. She had carried a spinning wheel all the way into the meadow yesterday. A short stalk of grass bounced from the corner of her mouth as she chewed it.

  One thing I knew from watching her was that there was something different about her. It was that same different I saw in Rafe and Kaden when they first walked into the tavern. That same different I saw when I looked at the Scholar. Something that couldn’t quite be hidden, whether good or bad. Something that swept into you as light as a feather or maybe sat in your gut like a heavy rock, but you knew it was there either way. There was something unusual enough about Dihara that it made me think she might really know more about the gift.

  Her eyes lifted to mine as I approached. “Thank you for the book,” I said. “It was useful.”

  She pressed her hands to her knees and stood. It seemed she’d been waiting for me. “Let’s go to the meadow. I’ll teach you what I know.”

  We stopped in the middle of a patch of clover. She lifted a strand of my hair, dropped it, then circled around me. She sniffed the air and shook her head. “You’re weak in the gift, but then you’ve had much practice in ignoring it.”

  “You know that by sniffing?”

  For the first time, she smiled, a puff of air escaping her wrinkled lips almost in a laugh. She took my hand. “Let’s walk.” The meadow spread the length of the valley, and we wound through it heading toward no particular destination. “You’re young, child. I sense you’re quite strong in other gifts, perhaps the ones you were meant to nurture, but it doesn’t mean it’s too late for you to learn something of
this one too. It’s good to have many strengths.”

  As we walked, she pointed out the thin clouds overhead and their slow march over the mountaintops. She pointed to the gentle shimmer of leggy willows along the bank, and then she had me turn around to look at our footprints on the meadow grass, already springing back as the breeze ruffled like a hand across them.

  “This world, it breathes you in, sniffs, it knows you, and then it breathes you out again, shares you. You’re not contained here in this single place alone. The wind, time, it circles, repeats, teaches, reveals, some swaths cutting deeper than others. The universe knows. The universe has a long memory. That is how the gift works. But there are some who are more open to the sharing than others.”

  “How can the world breathe you in?”

  “There are some mysteries even the world doesn’t reveal. Don’t we all need our secrets? Do we know why two people fall in love? Why a parent would sacrifice a child? Why a young woman would flee on her wedding day?”

  I stopped, sucking in a small gasp, but she pulled me along with her. “The truths of the world wish to be known, but they won’t force themselves upon you the way lies will. They’ll court you, whisper to you, play behind your eyelids, slip inside and warm your blood, dance along your spine and caress your neck until your flesh rises in bumps.”

  She took my hand and rolled it into a fist, pressing it hard to my middle just below my ribs. “And sometimes it prowls low here, heavy in your gut.” She released my hand and resumed walking. “That is the truth wishing to be known.”

  “But I’m a First Daughter, and according to the Holy Text—”

  “Do you think the way of truth cares about your birth order or words written on paper?” she asked. If Pauline had been there, she’d have been saying a penance for Dihara’s sacrilege, and the Scholar would have snapped Dihara’s knuckles for even thinking such a thing. The gift she described was not the one I had learned about.

  “It’s just supposed to come, isn’t it?”

  “Did your reading just come to you? Or did you have to devote effort to it? The seed of the gift may come, but a seedling that isn’t nourished dies quickly.” She turned, leading me down closer to the river. “The gift is a delicate way of knowing. It’s listening without ears, seeing without eyes, perceiving without knowledge. It’s how the few remaining Ancients survived. When they had nothing else, they had to return to the language of knowing buried deep within them. It’s a way as old as the universe itself.”

  “What of the gods? Where are they in all this?” I asked.

  “Look around you, girl. Which tree of this forest did they not create? They are where you choose to see them.”

  We walked down to where the river curved sharply back toward the mountain, and we sat on a thickly pebbled bank. She told me more about the gift and herself. She wasn’t always a vagabond. She was once the daughter of a fletcher in the Lesser Kingdom of Candora, but her circumstances changed when her parents and older sister died of a fever. Rather than live with an uncle she feared, she ran. She was only seven at the time and found herself lost deep in the woods. She probably would have been eaten by wolves if a passing family of vagabonds hadn’t found her.

  “Eristle said she heard me crying, which would have been impossible from the road. She heard me another way.” Dihara left with them that day and had never been back.

  “Eristle helped me learn to listen, to shut out the noise even when the skies quaked with thunder, even when my heart shook with fear, even when the noise of daily cares crowded my head instead. She helped me learn to be quiet and listen to what the world wanted to share. She helped me learn to be still and know. Let me see if I can help you.”

  * * *

  I sat alone in the meadow, the shoulder-high grass brushing against my arms, and I practiced what Dihara taught me. I shut out my thoughts, trying to breathe in what surrounded me, the waving grass of the meadow, the air, blocking out the noise of Griz chasing after his horse, the shouts of children playing, the yelping of wolves. Soon all those things swirled away on a breeze. Stillness.

  My breathing calmed just as my thoughts did. It was only one morning of quiet. One morning of listening. Dihara had told me I couldn’t summon the gift. That is exactly what it was, a gift. But you had to be ready, prepared. Listening and trusting took practice.

  The gift didn’t come to me fully known or clear, and I still had a lot of questions, yet today when I sat in the meadow, it felt as if my fingertips had brushed the tail of a star. My skin tingled with the dust of possibility.

  As I stood to return to camp, the tingle turned sharply to cold fingers gripping my neck and my footsteps faltered. Something Dihara said reached out and took hold of me. You’ve had much practice in ignoring it. I stopped, the full weight of her words finally settling in.

  It was true. I had ignored the gift. But I hadn’t done it on my own.

  There’s nothing to know, sweet child. It’s only the chill of the night.

  I had been trained to ignore it.

  By my own mother.

  CHAPTER FIFTY-SIX

  KADEN

  I woke up on the floor of Lia’s wagon and thought she had finally planted an ax in my skull. Then I remembered at least some of last night, and my head hurt even more. When I saw she was gone, I tried to get up quickly, but that was as big a mistake as drinking the vagabond fireshine in the first place.

  The world splintered into a thousand blinding lights, and my stomach lurched to my throat. I grabbed the wall for support and yanked down Reena’s curtains in the process. I made it out of the wagon and found Dihara, who told me Lia had just walked back down to the meadow. She sat me down and gave me some of her slimy antidote to drink and a pail of water to wash my face.

  Griz and the others laughed at my state. They knew I didn’t usually drink more than a polite sip because of who I was trained to be, a prepared assassin. What made me lose my good sense last night? But I knew the answer to that. Lia. I’d never been on a journey across the Cam Lanteux as agonizing as this one.

  I cleaned up and went to face her. She saw me coming across the meadow and stood. Was she glaring at me? I wished I could remember more of last night. She was still dressed in the garb of the vagabonds. It suited her far too well.

  I stopped a few steps away. “Good morning.”

  She looked at me, her head tilted and one brow raised. “You do know that it’s not morning?”

  “Good afternoon,” I corrected.

  She stared at me, saying nothing when I’d hoped she’d fill in the blanks. I cleared my throat. “About last night—” I didn’t know quite how to broach the subject.

  “Yes?” she prompted.

  I stepped closer. “Lia, I hope you know I didn’t get the wagon because I intended to sleep in there with you.”

  She still said nothing. This wasn’t the day I wanted her to acquire the skill of holding her tongue. I yielded. “Did I do anything that—”

  “If you had, you’d still be on the floor of that wagon, only you wouldn’t be breathing.” She sighed. “You were, for the most part, a gentleman, Kaden—well, as much as a drunken fool who barges in can be.”

  I breathed deeply. One concern out of the way. “I may have said some things, though.”

  “You did.”

  “Things I should know about?”

  “I imagine if you said them, you already know them.” She shrugged and turned her gaze to the river. “But you gave away no guarded Vendan secrets, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

  I walked over and took her hand in mine. She looked up at me, surprised. I held it gently so she could pull away if she chose to, but she didn’t. “Kaden, please, let’s—”

  “I’m not worried about Vendan secrets, Lia. I think you know that.”

  Her lips pulled tight, and then her eyes blazed. “You said nothing I could understand. All right? Just drunken nonsense.”

  I didn’t know if I could really believe her. I knew
what fireshine could do to a tongue, and I also knew the words I said in my head a hundred times a day against my will when I looked at her. And then there were the things about myself that I wanted no one to know.

  She met my gaze, her eyes resolute, her chin raised the way she always held it when her mind was racing. I had studied every gesture, every blink, every nuance of her, all the language that was Lia in all the miles we had traveled, and with every bit of strength I had, I returned my hand to my side. A throb pierced my temples, and I squinted.

  A wicked smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Good. I’m glad to see you’re paying for your excesses.” She nodded toward the river. “Let’s go get you some chiga weed. It grows along the banks. Dihara said it’s good for pain. This will be my thank-you for getting me the carvachi. It was a kindness.”

  I watched her turn, watched the breeze catch her hair and lift it. I watched her walk away. I didn’t hate all royals. I didn’t hate her.

  I followed after her and we walked along the banks, first up one side, then crossing on slick rocks and walking back down the other. She showed me the chiga weed and plucked several stalks as we walked, peeling back the outer leaves and breaking off a four-inch piece.

  “Chew,” she said, handing it to me.

  I looked at it suspiciously.

  “It’s not poison,” she promised. “If I were trying to kill you, I’d find a much more painful way to do it.”

  I smiled. “Yes, I suppose you would.”

  CHAPTER FIFTY-SEVEN

  RAFE

  “Are you going to tell us or not?” Jeb gnawed on a bone, savoring every last bit of flavor from the first fresh meat we’d had in days, and then threw it in the fire. “Does she have the gift?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “What do you mean, you don’t know? You spent half the summer with her, and you didn’t find out?”

  Orrin snorted. “He was too busy putting his tongue down her throat to ask questions.”

 
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