The kiss of deception, p.28
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.28

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  They all laughed, but I shot Orrin a glare. I knew it was meant in jest—in their own way, an approval, counting me as a man who had hunted down a girl and bent her to my will. But I knew the truth. It was nothing like that. If anyone had been bent and broken, it was me. I didn’t like them talking about her that way. She would one day be their queen. At least I prayed she would be.

  “What’s she like, this girl we’re going to get back?” Tavish asked.

  I owed them that much, a few answers, a glimpse of Lia. They were risking their lives, coming along with few questions asked, embarking on the most grueling ride they’d ever endured. These answers they had earned. I was also grateful for the way Tavish said it—get back—never questioning whether we would accomplish our purpose. I needed that now. Even if we were spare in number, Sven had gotten the best of a dozen regiments. They were trained in all the duties and weaponry of a soldier, but each had his special strengths.

  Though Orrin played crude, his skill with a bow was refined and unquestioned. His aim, even through wind and distance, was precise, and he could maintain the onslaught of three men. Jeb was skilled at silent attacks. He had an arresting smile and unimposing manner, but that was the last thing any of his victims noticed about him before he snapped their neck. Tavish was soft-spoken and sure. While others bragged, he downplayed his accomplishments, which were many. He wasn’t the strongest or quickest of the ranks, but he was the most calculating. He made every move count toward victory. We had all met and trained together as pledges.

  I, too, had my strengths, but their consummate skills were a matter of fact in the field, whereas they had seen mine only in practice. Except for Tavish. We shared a secret between us—the time I killed eight men in the space of ten minutes. I came away from it with a hefty gash in my thigh that Tavish himself had had to stitch because that had to remain a secret as well. Not even Sven was aware of that night, and he knew almost everything about me.

  I surveyed the four faces waiting for me to say something. Even Sven, who had thirty years on all of us and usually showed little interest in the idle chat of soldiers around a campfire, seemed to be waiting for some details about Lia.

  “She’s nothing like the ladies of court,” I said. “She doesn’t fuss about clothing. Most of the time, if she wasn’t working in the tavern, she wore trousers. Ones with holes in them.”

  “Trousers?” Jeb said in disbelief. His mother was master seamstress of the queen’s court, and he enjoyed the delights of fashion himself when he wasn’t in uniform.

  Sven sat forward. “She worked in a tavern? A princess?”

  I smiled. “Serving tables and washing dishes.”

  “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Sven asked.

  “You never asked.”

  Sven grumbled something to himself and sat back.

  “I like her,” Tavish said. “Tell us more.”

  I told them about our first meeting and how I wanted to hate her, and all of our times together after that. Almost all of our times. I told them she was small, a head shorter than me, but she had a temper and stood as tall as a man when she was angry, and I’d seen her bring a Morrighan soldier to his knees with a few sharp words. I told them how we had gathered blackberries and she flirted with me, and while I had still thought I hated her, all I wanted to do was kiss her, but then later, when we did finally kiss—I paused from my description and let out a long, slow breath.

  “It was good?” Jeb prompted, eager for the vicarious details.

  “It was good,” I answered simply.

  “Why didn’t you tell her then who you were?” Tavish asked.

  I supposed they needed to know this too, sooner rather than later—at least before we got her back. “I told you, we didn’t get along so well at first. Then I learned she’s not exactly fond of Dalbreck or anyone from there. She can’t tolerate them, in fact.”

  “But that’s us,” Jeb said.

  I shrugged. “She’s not an admirer of tradition, and she holds Dalbreck responsible for the arranged marriage.” I took a swig from my bota. “And she especially scorned the Prince of Dalbreck for allowing his papa to arrange a marriage for him.”

  I saw Tavish wince.

  “And that’s you,” Jeb said.

  “Jeb, I know who’s who! You don’t need to tell me,” I snapped. I sat back and said more quietly, “She said she could never respect a man like that.” And now they knew just what I was dealing with and what they’d be dealing with too.

  “What does she know?” Orrin asked, waving a grouse leg in his hand. He sucked at a piece of meat between his teeth. “She’s just a girl. That’s the way these things are done.”

  “Who did she think you were?” Tavish asked.

  “A farmhand staying over for the festival.”

  Jeb laughed. “You? A farmhand?”

  “That’s right, a good farmer boy gone to town for his yearly jollies,” Orrin said. “Did you put a baby in her belly yet?”

  My jaw turned rigid. I never held my station over fellow soldiers, but I didn’t hesitate now. “Tread carefully, Orrin. You speak of your future queen.”

  Sven looked at me and subtly nodded.

  Orrin sat back, a feigned look of fear in his eyes. “Well, hang me. Looks like our prince has finally polished his jewels.”

  “It’s about time,” Tavish added.

  “I pity the Vendan who stole her away,” Jeb chimed in.

  Apparently none of them minded my pulling rank. It seemed that maybe they were even waiting for it.

  “The one thing I don’t understand,” Jeb said, “is why that Vendan didn’t just let the bounty hunter slit her throat—do his work for him.”

  “Because I was standing right behind him. I told him to shoot.”

  “But then why take her all the way to Venda? Ransom?” Tavish interjected. “What was his purpose in taking her?”

  I remembered how Kaden had looked at her that very first night, a panther on a doe, and how he had looked at her every day after that.

  I didn’t answer Tavish, and maybe my silence was answer enough.

  There was a long pause and then Orrin belched. “We’ll get my future queen back,” he said, “then we’ll skewer all their bloody jewels on a stick.”

  And then there were times when Orrin’s crude tongue seemed more refined and eloquent than any of ours.


  I sat on the grassy edge of the riverbank watching the rippling current, my thoughts jumping between past and present. The last few days, I had conserved as much energy as I could, trying to put weight back on. I spent most of my time in the meadow under the watchful eyes of Eben or Kaden, but I blocked them out as Dihara had shown me, trying to listen. It was the only way I had a prayer of finding my way home again.

  When I cocked my head to the side, closed my eyes, or lifted my chin to the air, Kaden thought I was continuing to perform for the others, but Eben regarded me with wonder. One day he asked me if I had really seen buzzards picking at his bones. I replied with a shrug. Better to keep him wondering and at a distance. I didn’t want his knife at my throat again, and according to Kaden’s own words, their belief in the gift was all that kept me alive. How long could that last?

  After breakfast this morning, Kaden told me we had three more days here before we left, which meant I would need to be on my way sooner. They were all becoming lazy in their watchfulness since I’d made no efforts to flee. I was slowly crafting my opportunity. I had circled the camp looking for weapons I might filch from the vagabonds, but if they had any, they all seemed to be stored away in their carvachis. A heavy iron spit, a hatchet, and a large butcher knife were the best the camp had to offer—all easily missed and bulky if I tried to slip one into the folds of my skirt. Kaden’s crossbow and sword and my dagger were all inside his tent. Sneaking in there was an impossible task.

  Besides a weapon, a horse would be essential for escape, and I was fairly certain that the fastest horse belon
ged to Kaden, so that was the one I would take. Therein lay another problem. They left the horses unsaddled and unbridled. I could ride bareback if I had to, but I could go much faster with a saddle, and speed would be essential.

  I spotted Kaden in the distance, standing by his horse and brushing it, seemingly attentive to his task, though I wondered how often he had looked my way.

  I was still pondering something he’d told me last night. I had spent most of yesterday trying to understand the ancient Vendan language, and I had asked him if he had ever heard of the Song of Venda. He knew of it but explained that there were many songs sung in various versions. They were all said to be the words of the kingdom’s namesake.

  He told me Venda had been the first ruler’s wife. She had gone mad and sat on the city wall day after day, singing songs to the people. A few she wrote down, but most were memorized by those who listened. She was revered because of her kindnesses and wisdom, and even after she went mad, they’d come to hear her wailings, until finally one day she fell from the wall and died. It was believed by many that her husband was the one who pushed her, unable to listen to her nonsense any longer.

  Her mad babble lived on, in spite of the ruler’s efforts to ban it. He burned all the songs he could find that had been written down, but the others took on a life of their own when they were sung by the people as they went about their day. I asked Kaden if he might be able to read a passage of Vendan for me, and he said he couldn’t read. He claimed none of them did and that reading was rare in Venda.

  This puzzled me. I was certain that back in Terravin I had seen him read several times. Berdi had no menus at the tavern so we recited the fare, but there were notices pinned outside, and I was sure I had seen him stop to look at them. Of course, that didn’t mean he understood what he saw, but at the festival games, I thought he had read the events board along with the rest of us, pointing out the log wrestling. Why would he lie about being able to read?

  I watched him pat his horse’s rump, sending him into the meadow to graze with the others, and then he disappeared into his tent. I turned my attention back to the river, tossing a small flat pebble and watching it sink and nestle in next to another. My time in camp with Kaden had become awkward several times, or perhaps I was just more self-conscious now.

  I had known he cared about me. It was hardly a secret. It was the reason I was still alive, but I hadn’t quite grasped how much he cared. And in spite of myself, I knew in my own way, I cared about him too. Not Kaden the assassin, but the Kaden I had known back in Terravin, the one who had caught my attention the minute he walked through the tavern door. The one who was calm and had mysterious but kind eyes.

  I remembered dancing with him at the festival, his arms pulling me closer, and the way he struggled with his thoughts, holding them back. He didn’t hold back the night he was drunk. The fireshine had loosened his lips and he laid it all out quite blatantly. Slurred and sloshy but clear. He loved me. This from a barbarian who was sent to kill me.

  I lay back, staring into the cloudless sky, a shade bluer and brighter than yesterday.

  Did he even know what love was? For that matter, did I? Even my parents didn’t seem to know. I crossed my arms behind my head as a pillow. Maybe there was no one way to define it. Maybe there were as many shades of love as the blues of the sky.

  I wondered if his interest had begun when I tended his shoulder. I remembered his odd look of surprise when I touched him, as if no one had ever shown him a kindness before. If Griz, Finch, and Malich were any indication of his past, maybe no one had. They showed a certain steely devotion to one another, but it in no way resembled kindness. And then there were those scars on his chest and back. Only cruel savages could have delivered those. Yet somewhere along the way, Kaden had learned kindness. Tenderness, even. It surfaced in small actions. He seemed like he was two separate people, the intensely loyal Vendan assassin and someone else far different, someone he had locked away, a prisoner just like me.

  I stood to return to camp and was brushing off my skirt when I spotted Kaden walking toward me. He carried a basket. I walked out to the meadow to meet him.

  “Reena made these this morning,” he said. “She told me to bring you one.”

  Reena sending him on a delivery? Not likely. He’d been quite conciliatory since bursting into my carvachi and passing out in a drunken stupor. Maybe even ashamed.

  He handed me the basket filled with three crisp dumplings.

  “Crabapple,” he said.

  I was about to reach in the basket to take one when a horse that had been grazing nearby suddenly charged at another horse. Kaden grabbed me and pulled me out of its path. We stumbled back, unable to regain our footing, and both tumbled to the ground. He rolled over me in a protective motion, hovering in case the horse came closer, but it was already gone.

  The world snapped to silence. The tall grass waved above us, hiding us from view. He gazed down at me, his elbows straddling my sides, his chest brushing mine, his face inches away.

  I saw the look in his eyes. My heart pounded against my ribs.

  “Are you all right?” His voice was low and husky.

  “Yes,” I whispered.

  His face hovered closer to mine. I was going to push away, look away, do something, but I didn’t, and before I knew what was happening, the space between us disappeared. His lips were warm and gentle against mine, and his breath thrummed in my ears. Heat raced through me. It was just as I had imagined that night with Pauline back in Terravin so long ago. Before—

  I pushed him away.


  I got to my feet, my chest heaving, busying myself with a loose button on my shirt. “Let’s forget that happened, Kaden.”

  He had jumped to his feet too. He grabbed my hand so I had to look at him. “You wanted to kiss me.”

  I shook my head, denying it, but it was true. I had wanted to kiss him. What have I done? I yanked free and walked away, leaving him standing in the meadow, feeling his eyes follow after me all the way back to my carvachi.


  We sat under a full moon around the campfire. It was warm, making the tang of pine and meadow grass floating in the air stronger. They had brought blankets and pillows outside so we could eat our supper around the crackling fire. We finished the last of the sage cakes, and I didn’t hesitate to lick the crumbs from my fingers. These vagabonds ate well.

  I looked at Kaden opposite me, his hair a warm honey gold in the firelight. I had made a terrible mistake kissing him. I still wasn’t sure why I’d done it. I yearned for something. Maybe just to be held, to be comforted, to feel less alone. Maybe to pretend for a moment. Pretend what? That all was well? It wasn’t.

  Maybe I just wondered. I needed to know.

  The glow of the fire accentuated the hard edge of his jaw and the raised vein at his temple. He was frustrated. His gaze met mine, angry, searching. I looked away.

  “It’s time for rest, my little angel,” one of the young mothers said to her son, a boy named Tevio. Many of the others had already gone bed. Tevio protested that he wasn’t tired, and Selena, just a dash older, joined in as if anticipating that she’d be the next one dragged away. I smiled. They reminded me of myself at that age. I was never ready to go to my bedchamber, maybe because I was sent there so often.

  “If I tell you a story,” I said, “will you be ready for bed then?”

  They both nodded enthusiastically, and I noticed Natiya nestled closer to them, waiting for a story too.

  “Once upon a time,” I said, “long, long ago, in a land of giants, and gods, and dragons, there were a little prince and a little princess, who looked very much like the two of you.” I altered the story, the way my brothers had done for me, the way my aunts and mother had, and told them the story of Morrighan, a brave young girl specially chosen by the gods to drive her purple carvachi across the wilderness and lead the holy Remnant to a place of safety. I leaned more toward my brother’s version, tellin
g of the dragons she tamed, the giants she tricked, the gods she visited, and the storms she talked down from the sky into her palm and then blew them away with a whisper. As I told the story, I noticed even the adults listened, but especially Eben. He had forgotten to act like the hardened ruffian he was and became a child as wide-eyed as the rest. Had no one ever told him a story before?

  I added a few more adventures that even my brothers had never conjured to draw the story out, so that by the time Morrighan reached the land of rebirth, a team of ogres pulled her carvachi and she had sung the fallen stars of destruction back into the sky.

  “And that’s where the stars promised to stay for evermore.”

  Tevio smiled and yawned, and his mother gathered him up into her arms with no further protests. Selena followed her mother to bed too, whispering that she was a princess.

  A heavy stillness settled in their wake. I watched those who remained stare into the fire as if the story lingered in their thoughts. Then a voice broke the silence.

  Hold on.

  I drew a sharp breath and looked over my shoulder into the black forest. I waited for more, but nothing came. I slowly turned back to the fire. I caught Kaden’s sharp stare. “Again?”

  But this time it was something. I just didn’t understand what. I looked down at my feet, not wanting to let on that this time I wasn’t performing for anyone’s benefit.

  “Nothing,” I answered.

  “It always seems to be nothing,” Malich sneered.

  “Not at the City of Dark Magic,” Finch said. “She saw them coming there.”

  “Osa lo besadad avat e chadaro,” Griz agreed.

  The older vagabond men sitting on either side of him nodded, making signs to the gods. “Grati te deos.”

  Kaden grunted. “That story of yours, you really believe what you just told the children?”

  I bristled. That story? He didn’t need to attack a story the children clearly enjoyed just because he was frustrated with me. “Yes, Kaden, I do believe in ogres and dragons. I’ve seen four of them firsthand, though they are far uglier and more stupid than those I described. I didn’t want to frighten the children.”

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