The kiss of deception, p.29
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.29

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Malich huffed at the insult, but Kaden smiled as if he enjoyed seeing me rankled. Finch laughed at the girl Morrighan and then he and Malich took the whole story down a profane and vulgar path.

  I stood to leave, disgusted, narrowing my eyes at Kaden. He knew what he had unleashed. “Do assassins always have so many loutish escorts?” I asked. “Are they all really necessary, or are they just along for the crude entertainment?”

  “It’s a long way across the Cam Lanteux—”

  “We aren’t escorts!” Eben complained, his chest puffed out as though he was greatly injured. “We had our own work to do.”

  “What do you mean, your own work?” I asked.

  Kaden sat forward. “Eben, shut up.”

  Griz growled, echoing Kaden’s sentiment, but Malich waved his hand through the air. “Eben’s right,” he said. “Let him speak. At least we finished the work we set out to do, which is more than you can say.”

  Eben hurried to describe what they’d done in Morrighan before Kaden could stop him again. He described roads they had blocked with landslides, flumes and cisterns they had fouled, and the many bridges they had brought down.

  I stepped forward. “You brought down what?”

  “Bridges,” Finch repeated, then smiled. “It keeps the enemy occupied.”

  “We’re not too ugly or stupid for some tasks, Princess,” Malich jeered.

  My hands trembled, and I felt my throat closing. Blood surged so violently at my temples I was dizzy.

  “What’s wrong with her?” Eben asked.

  I walked around the fire ring until I was standing over them. “Did you take down the bridge at Chetsworth?”

  “That was the easy one,” Finch said.

  I could barely speak above a whisper. “Except for the carriage that came along?”

  Malich laughed. “I took care of it. That was easy too,” he said.

  I heard the screams of an animal, felt flesh beneath my nails, the warmth of blood on my hands, and strands of hair between my fingers as I came down on him again and again, gouging at his eyes, kicking at his legs, kneeing his ribs, my fists pounding his face. Arms grabbed my waist and yanked me off him, but I continued to scream and kick and dig my nails into any flesh within reach.

  Griz clamped down on my arms, pinning them to my sides. Kaden held Malich back. Lines of blood covered his face, and more ran from his nose.

  “Let me go! I’m going to kill the bitch!” he yelled.

  “You worthless, vile bastards!” I screamed. I wasn’t sure what words flew from my mouth, one threat piling on another, battling with the threats Malich hurled back at me, Kaden screaming for everyone to shut up, until I finally choked and had to stop. I swallowed, tasting the warm blood pooling inside my cheek where I had bit it. My chest shuddered, and I lowered my voice, my next words deadly even.

  “You murdered my brother’s wife. She was only nineteen. She was going to have a baby, and you miserable cowards put an arrow through her throat.” I glared, my head throbbing, watching them put the picture together in their own minds. I felt as much revulsion for myself as I did for them. I had been dining and telling stories with Greta’s murderers.

  Whoever had gone to bed in their carvachis or tents had come back out. They gathered silently in their nightclothes, trying to understand the furor. Finch had bloody lines across his jaw too, and Kaden had them on his neck. Eben stood back, his eyes wide, as if he were looking at a demon gone mad.

  “Ved mika ara te carvachi!” Griz bellowed.

  Finch and one of the vagabond men grabbed Malich, who still strained to get at me, and Kaden came and took me brusquely by the arm, dragging me to the carvachi. He opened the door and all but threw me in, slamming the door behind him.

  “What’s the matter with you?” he yelled.

  I stared at him in disbelief. “Do you expect me to congratulate them for murdering her?”

  His chest heaved, but he forced a slow deep breath. His hands were fists at his sides. He lowered his voice. “It wasn’t their intention, Lia.”

  “Do you think it matters what they intended? She’s dead.”

  “War is ugly, Lia.”

  “War? What war, Kaden? The imaginary one you’re waging? The one Greta didn’t sign up for? She wasn’t a soldier. She was an innocent.”

  “Lots of innocents die in war. Most are Vendans. Countless numbers have died trying to settle in the Cam Lanteux.”

  How dare he compare Greta to lawbreakers. “There’s a treaty hundreds of years old forbidding it!”

  His jaw hardened. “Why don’t you tell that to Eben? He was only five when he watched both his parents die trying to defend their home from soldiers setting fire to it. His mother died with an ax to her chest, and his father was torched along with their house.”

  Rage still pounded in my head. “It wasn’t Morrighese soldiers who did it!”

  Kaden stepped closer, a sneer smearing his face. “Really? He was too young to know what kind of soldiers they were, but he does remember a lot of red—the banner colors of Morrighan.”

  “It must be very convenient to blame Morrighan’s soldiers when there are no witnesses and only a child’s remembrance of red. Look to your own bloody savages and the blood they spill for the guilty.”

  “Innocents die, Lia. On all sides,” he yelled. “Pull your royal head out of your ass and get used to it!”

  I looked at him, unable to speak.

  He swallowed, shaking his head, then swiped his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.” His eyes focused on the floor, then on me again, his anger now subdued by his infuriating practiced calm. “But you’ve made things more difficult. It will be harder to keep you safe from Malich now.”

  I drew in a false breath of shock. “A thousand pardons! I wouldn’t want to make anything harder for you, because everything is so stinking easy for me! This is a holiday, right?”

  My last words wobbled, and my vision blurred.

  He sighed and stepped toward me. “Let me see your hands.”

  I looked down at them. They were covered in blood and still shaking. My fingertips throbbed where three nails had been torn past the quick, and two fingers on my left hand were already swollen and blue—they felt broken. I had attacked Malich and the others as if my fingers were made of tempered steel. They were the only weapons I had.

  I looked back at Kaden. He had known all along that they had killed Greta.

  “How much blood do you have on your hands, Kaden? How many people have you killed?” I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked the question before. He was an assassin. His job was killing, but he hid it far too well.

  He didn’t answer, but I saw his jaw tighten.

  “How many?” I asked again.

  “Too many.”

  “So many you’ve lost count.”

  Creases deepened at the corners of his eyes.

  He reached for my hand, but I pulled it away. “Get out, Kaden. I may be your prisoner, but I’m not your whore.”

  My words left a deeper wound than the ones on his neck. Anger flashed through his eyes and shattered his calm. He spun and left, slamming the door behind him.

  All I wanted was to collapse into a ball on the floor, but just seconds later, I heard a soft tap on the door, and it eased open. It was Dihara. She entered carrying a small pail of scented water with leaves floating on top. “For your hands. Fingers fester quickly.”

  I bit my lip and nodded. She sat me down in the lone chair in the carvachi and pulled a short stool up for herself. She dipped my hands in the water and wiped them gently with a soft cloth.

  “I’m sorry if I frightened the children,” I said.

  “You’ve lost someone close to you.”

  “Two people,” I whispered, because I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the Walther I knew back again. Out here I couldn’t do anything for him. For anyone. How little the worth of my own fleeting happiness seemed now. Even the barbarians would have had the goo
d sense to back down from the combined force of two armies. The prospect had frightened them enough to want to dispose of me. Was that how Kaden had planned to eliminate me, an arrow through my throat like Greta’s? Was that what he had regretted so deeply that night we danced? The prospect of killing me? His words, we can’t dwell on the maybes, came back to me, bitter and biting.

  Dihara pulled away a piece of hanging nail, and I winced. She placed my hands back in the pail, washing away the blood. “The broken fingers will need bandaging too,” she said. “But they’ll heal quickly. Soon enough for you to do whatever you need to do.”

  I watched the herbs floating in the water. “I don’t know what that is anymore.”

  “You will.”

  She took my hands from the pail and carefully wiped them dry, then applied a thick sticky balm to the raw skin of the ripped nails. It immediately eased the pain with numbing coolness. She wrapped the three fingertips in strips of cloth.

  “Take a deep breath,” she said and pulled on the two blue fingers, making me cry out. “You’ll want them to heal straight.” She wound them together with more cloth until they were stiff and unbendable. I looked at them, trying to imagine saddling a horse or holding reins now.

  “How long will it take?” I asked.

  “Nature is dependable in such things. Usually a few weeks. But sometimes the magic will come, greater than nature itself.”

  Kaden had warned me to be wary of her, and now I wondered if any of what she told me was true—or had I simply been grasping at false hope when I had nothing else to hold?

  “Yes, there’s always magic,” I said, cynicism heavy on my tongue.

  She placed my bandaged hands back in my lap. “All ways belong to the world. What is magic but what we don’t yet understand? Like the sign of the vine and lion you carry?”

  “You know about that?”

  “Natiya told me.”

  I sighed and shook my head. “That wasn’t magic. Only the work of careless artisans, dyes that were too strong, and my endless bad fortune.”

  Her old face wrinkled with a grin. “Maybe.” She picked up her pail of medicinal water and stood. “But remember, child, we may all have our own story and destiny, and sometimes our seemingly bad fortune, but we’re all part of a greater story too. One that transcends the soil, the wind, time … even our own tears.” She reached down and wiped under my eye with her thumb. “Greater stories will have their way.”

  CHAPTER SIXTY

  I was up early, hoping I’d beat Malich to a hot cup of chicory before he stirred from his tent. I hadn’t slept well, which was no surprise. I startled awake several times during the night after seeing the wide-eyed stare of a bloody-jointed puppet and then, as I hovered over it, the face would transform to Greta’s.

  Those dreams were replaced with ones I’d had of Rafe when we first met, partial glimpses of his face dissolving like a specter in ruins, forest, fire, and water. And then I heard the voice again, the same one I’d heard back in Terravin that I had thought was only a remembrance. In the farthest corner, I will find you. Except this time, I knew the voice was Rafe’s. But worst were the dreams of Eben walking toward me, his face spattered with blood, an ax in his chest. I screamed, waking myself, sucking in air with the word innocents still on my tongue. Get used to it. I would never get used to it. Was Kaden feeding me more lies? Deception seemed to be all he knew. When I woke in the morning, I felt as if I had tussled all night with demons.

  The birds of the forest were just beginning to call in the predawn light when I stepped out from the carvachi, so I was surprised to see that my depraved Vendan companions all sat around the fire already. I refrained from gasping when I saw them, but they all looked like they had wrestled with a lion. The scratches had darkened overnight and were now angry bloody welts striping their flesh. Malich was the worst, his face mauled and the skin under his left eye shining blue and red where I had punched him, but even Griz had a slash across his nose, and one of Finch’s arms was riddled with lines. Malich glared as I approached, and Kaden leaned forward, ready to intervene if necessary.

  No one spoke, but I was well aware that they were watching me as I fumbled with bandaged hands to hold a cup and pour from the pot of chicory. I was going to take it to the large tent to avoid their company, but when I turned and met Malich’s glare, I thought the better of it. If I backed down now, he’d think I was afraid of him, and that would only fuel him. Besides, I had steaming hot chicory I could throw in his mauled face if he stepped toward me.

  “I trust you all slept well,” I said, deliberately keeping my tone light. I returned Malich’s glare with a tight-lipped grin.

  “Yes, we did,” Kaden answered quickly.

  “I’m sorry to hear that.” I sipped my chicory and noted that Eben wasn’t present. “Eben’s still sleeping?”

  “No,” Kaden said. “He’s loading the horses.”

  “Loading the horses? Why?”

  “We’re leaving today.”

  The chicory sloshed in my cup, half of it spilling to the ground. “You said we weren’t leaving for three days.”

  Finch laughed and rubbed his scratched arm. “You think he’d tell you when we were really leaving?” he asked. “So you could sneak out sooner?”

  “She’s a princess,” Malich said. “And we’re all stupid ogres. Of course that’s what she thought.”

  I looked at Kaden, who had remained silent.

  “Eat something and get your things out of Reena’s carvachi,” he said. “We’re leaving in an hour.”

  Malich smiled. “That enough notice for you, Princess?”

  * * *

  Kaden supervised me in stony silence, not caring that I fumbled with bandaged fingers as I gathered my few belongings together. He knew exactly where I kept the bag of food I had been hoarding for my escape—bits of sage cakes, balls of goat cheese rolled in salt and gauze, and potatoes and turnips I had pilfered from the vagabonds’ supplies. He snatched the bag from beneath Reena’s bed without a word to me. He went to load it on the horses along with the other food, leaving me to tuck the last few items into my saddlebag. Dihara came into the carvachi and gave me a small vial of balm for my fingers and some chiga weed in case I had more pain.

  “Wait,” I said as she turned to leave. I threw back the flap of my saddlebag and removed the gold jeweled box I had stolen from the Scholar. I took out the books and returned them to my bag. I held the box out to her. “In the winter when you travel south, there are cities in the Lesser Kingdoms where books and teachers can be had. This should buy you many. It’s never too late to learn something of another gift. At least for the children’s sake.” I pushed it into her hands. “As you said, it’s good to have many strengths.”

  She nodded and set the box on the bed. Her hands reached up and gently cupped my face. “Ascente cha ores ri vé breazza.” She leaned close, pressing her cheek to mine and whispered, “Zsu viktara.”

  When she stepped back, I shook my head. I hadn’t yet learned their language.

  “Turn your ear to the wind,” she interpreted. “Stand strong.”

  * * *

  Natiya glared at Kaden as he helped me up on my horse. Malich had insisted that my hands either be cut off or tied before we left. While Kaden would have argued Malich down a week ago, today he didn’t, and my hands were bound. Natiya and the other women had quickly gathered together a riding outfit for me since they had burned my other clothes. It was clear they hadn’t known we would be leaving today either. They found a long split-legged riding skirt, and a snug white shirt for me to wear. They also gave me an old cloak in case the weather turned, and I packed that into my bedroll. Reena made me keep the scarf for my head.

  Griz roared a hearty farewell, but none of the vagabonds responded. Maybe good-byes weren’t their way, or maybe they felt as I did, that it just didn’t seem right. A farewell seemed born of a choice to leave, and they all knew this wasn’t my choice, but at the last minute, Reena and Natiya ran
after our horses. Kaden halted our procession for them to catch up.

  Like Dihara’s, their parting words came in their own tongue, maybe because it was more natural and heartfelt for them that way, but their words were only directed at me. They stood on either side of my horse.

  “Revas jaté en meteux,” Reena said breathlessly. “Walk tall and true,” she whispered with both worry and hope in her eyes. She touched her chin, lifting it, indicating I should do the same.

  I nodded and reached down to touch my bound hands to hers.

  Natiya touched my shin on the other side, her eyes fierce as she looked into mine. “Kev cha veon bika reodes li cha scavanges beestra!” Her tone was neither soft nor hopeful. She shot Kaden another glare, her head cocked to the side this time as if daring him to interpret.

  He frowned and complied. “May your horse kick stones in your enemy’s teeth,” he said flatly, sharing none of Natiya’s passion.

  I looked down at her, my eyes stinging as I kissed my fingers and lifted them to the heavens. “From your noble heart to the gods’ ears.”

  * * *

  We departed with Natiya’s final blessing as our send-off. Kaden kept his horse close to mine, as if he thought I might try to flee even with my hands bound. I wasn’t sure if I was exhausted or numb or broken, but a strange part of me was calm. Maybe it was the parting words from Dihara, Reena, and Natiya that bolstered me. I lifted my chin. I had been outmaneuvered, but I wasn’t defeated. Yet.

  When we were about a mile down the valley, Kaden said, “You still plan to run, don’t you?”

  I looked at my bound hands resting on the horn of the saddle, the reins nearly useless in my grip. I slowly met his gaze. “Shall I lie to you and say no, when we both already know the answer?”

  “You’d die out here in the wilderness alone. There’s nowhere for you to go.”

  “I have a home, Kaden.”

  “It’s far behind you now. Venda will be your new home.”

  “You could still let me go. I won’t go back to Civica to secure the alliance. I give you my solemn promise.”

 
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