The kiss of deception, p.3
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.3

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  Pauline laughed, but our nervous bravado hung in the air between us. We both knew there had been occasional sightings of small bands of them in the woods crossing from Venda into the forbidden territories of the Cam Lanteux. Sometimes they even ventured boldly into the kingdoms of Morrighan and Dalbreck, disappearing as easily as wolves when they were pursued. For now, we were still too close to the heart of Morrighan to need to be worried about them. I hoped. We were more likely to encounter vagabonds, the drifting nomads who sometimes strayed from the Cam Lanteux. I had never seen any myself, but had heard of their unusual ways. They rode in their colorful wagons to trade trinkets, buy supplies, sell their mysterious potions, or sometimes play music for a coin or two, but still, they weren’t the ones who worried me most. My greatest worries were my father and what I had dragged Pauline into. There was so much we hadn’t had time to discuss last night.

  I watched her as she absently stared into the fire, adding kindling as needed. Pauline was resourceful, but I knew she wasn’t fearless, and that made her courage today far greater than mine. She had everything to lose by what we had done. I had everything to gain.

  “I’m sorry, Pauline. What a tangle I’ve made for you.”

  She shrugged. “I was going to leave anyway. I told you.”

  “But not like this. You could have left under far more favorable circumstances.”

  She grinned, unable to disagree. “Maybe.” Her grin slowly faded, her eyes searching my face. “But I never could have left for as important a reason. We can’t always wait for the perfect timing.”

  I didn’t deserve a friend like her. I ached with the compassion she had shown me. “We’ll be hunted,” I told her. “There will be a bounty on my head.” This was something we hadn’t talked about in the wee hours of the morning.

  She looked away and shook her head vigorously. “No, not from your own father.”

  I sighed, hugging my shins closer and staring at the glowing embers near my feet. “Especially from my father. I’ve committed an act of treason, the same as if a soldier of his army had deserted. And worse, I’ve humiliated him. I’ve made him look weak. His cabinet won’t let him forget that. He’ll have to act.”

  She couldn’t disagree with this either. From the time I was twelve, as a member of the royal court, I’d been required to attend and witness the executions of traitors. It was a rare occurrence, since public hangings proved an effective deterrent, but we both knew the story of my father’s own sister. She had died before I was born when she threw herself from the East Tower. Her son had deserted his regiment, and she knew that even the king’s nephew wouldn’t be spared. He wasn’t. He was hung the next day, and they were both buried in disgrace in the same unmarked grave. Some lines couldn’t be crossed in Morrighan. Loyalty was one of them.

  Pauline frowned. “But you’re not a soldier, Lia. You’re his daughter. You had no choice, and that meant I had no choice. No one should be forced to marry someone they don’t love.” She lay back, gazing up at the stars and wrinkling her nose. “Especially not some old stuffy, puffy prince.”

  We broke into giggles again, and more than the air I breathed, I was thankful for Pauline. We watched the twinkling constellations together, and she told me about Mikael, the promises they’d made to each other, the sweet things he whispered in her ear, and the plans they’d made for when he returned from his last patrol with the Royal Guard at the end of this month. I saw the love in her eyes and the change in her voice when she spoke of him.

  She told me how much she missed him but said she was confident he would find her because he knew her like no one else in the world knew her. They had talked of Terravin for countless hours—of the life they’d build there and the children they’d raise. The more she talked, the more the ache within me grew. I had only vague, empty thoughts of the future, mostly of what I didn’t want, while Pauline had fashioned dreams with real people and real details. She had created a future with someone else.

  I wondered what it would be like to have someone who knew me so well, someone who would look right into my soul, someone whose very touch sent all other thoughts from my mind. I tried to imagine someone who hungered for the same things I did and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and not because it fulfilled a loveless agreement on paper.

  Pauline squeezed my hand and sat up, adding more wood to the fire. “We should get some sleep so we can make an early start.”

  She was right. We had at least a week’s ride ahead of us, assuming we didn’t get lost. Pauline hadn’t been to Terravin since she was a child and wasn’t sure of the way, and I had never been there at all, so we could only follow her instincts and rely on the help of passing strangers. I spread a blanket on the ground for us to sleep on and brushed the needles of the forest floor from my hair.

  She glanced at me hesitantly. “Do you mind if I say the holy remembrances first? I’ll say them softly.”

  “Of course you should,” I whispered, trying to display a modicum of respect for her sake and feeling a twinge of guilt that I wasn’t compelled to say them myself. Pauline was faithful, while I hadn’t made a secret of my disdain for the traditions that had dictated my future.

  She knelt, saying the holy remembrances, her voice hypnotic, like the soft chords of the harp that echoed throughout the abbey. I watched her, thinking how foolish fate was. She’d have made a far better First Daughter of Morrighan, the daughter my parents would have wanted, quiet and discreet of tongue, patient, loyal to the ways of old, pure of heart, perceptive to the unsaid, closer to having a gift than I would ever be, perfect for a First Daughter in all ways.

  I lay back and listened to the story she chanted, the story of the original First Daughter using the gift the gods gave her to lead the chosen Remnant away from the devastation to safety and a new land, leaving behind a ravaged world and building a new, hopeful one. In her sweet lilt, the story was beautiful, redemptive, compelling, and I became lost in its rhythm, lost in the depth of the woods surrounding us, lost in the world that lay beyond, lost in the magic of a time gone by. In her tender notes, the story reached all the way to the beginning of the universe and back again. I could almost make sense of it.

  I stared into the circle of sky high above the pines, distant and untouchable, sparkling, alive, and a longing grew within me to reach out and share its magic. The trees reached for the magic too, then shivered in unison as if an army of ghosts had just swept across their upper boughs—an entire knowing world just beyond my reach.

  I thought of all my hidden moments as a child, sneaking away in the middle of the night to the calmest part of the citadelle—the roof—a place where the constant noise was hushed and I became one of those quiet specks connected to the universe. I felt close there, to something I couldn’t name.

  If I could only reach out and touch the stars, I would know everything. I would understand.

  Know what, my darling?

  This, I would say, pressing my hand against my chest. I had no words to describe the ache inside me.

  There’s nothing to know, sweet child. It’s only the chill of the night. My mother would gather me in her arms and lead me back to bed. Later, when my nighttime wanderings didn’t stop, she had a lock added to the rooftop door just out of my reach.

  Pauline finally finished, her last words a hushed reverent whisper. So shall it be for evermore.

  “Evermore,” I whispered to myself, wondering just how long that was.

  She curled up on the blanket next to me, and I pulled the wedding cloak up over both of us. The sudden silence made the woods take a bold step closer, and our circle of light grew smaller.

  Pauline quickly fell asleep, but the events of the day still churned inside me. It didn’t matter that I was exhausted. My tired muscles twitched, and my mind jumped from one thought to the next like a hapless cricket dodging a stampede of feet.

  My only consolation as I looked up at the blinking stars was that the prince of Dalbreck was probably still awake t
oo, furiously jostling home on a rutted road, his old bones aching with pain in a cold, uncomfortable carriage—with no young bride to warm him.

  CHAPTER THREE

  THE PRINCE

  I cinched the buckle on my pack. I had enough to get me by for two weeks, and enough coin in my bag if it should take me longer. Surely there would be an inn or two along the way. She probably hadn’t gotten much farther than a day’s ride from the citadelle.

  “I can’t let you do this.”

  I smiled at Sven. “You think you have a choice?”

  I was no longer his young ward to keep out of trouble. I was a grown man, had two inches and thirty pounds on him, and enough pent-up frustration to be a formidable foe.

  “You’re still angry. It’s only been a few days. Give it a few more.”

  “I’m not angry. Amused maybe. Curious.”

  Sven snatched the reins of my horse from me, causing him to skitter. “You’re angry because she thought of it before you did.”

  Sometimes I hated Sven. For a battle-scarred curd, he was too perceptive. I grabbed the reins back. “Only amused. And curious,” I promised him.

  “You already said that.”

  “So I did.” I placed the saddle blanket on my horse’s back, sliding it down the withers and smoothing out the wrinkles.

  Sven didn’t see anything amusing about my venture and continued to present arguments as I adjusted the saddle. I hardly heard any of them. I was thinking only about how good it would feel to be away. My father was far more put out than I was, claiming it to be a deliberate affront. What kind of king can’t control his own daughter? And that was one of his more reasoned responses.

  He and his cabinet were already deploying entire brigades to key outlying garrisons to fortify them and to flaunt in Morrighan’s face what decisive strength really was. The uneasy alliance had toppled on its head, but worse than the cabinet’s chest-beating and conspiracy theories were the sorrowful looks from my mother. She was already broaching the subject of finding another bride in one of the Lesser Kingdoms, or even from among our own nobility, missing the entire point of the match in the first place.

  I put my foot in the stirrup and swung up into the saddle. My horse snorted and stamped, as eager as I was to be gone.

  “Wait!” Sven said, stepping into my path, a foolish move for someone with his considerable knowledge about horses—especially mine. He caught himself and moved aside. “You don’t even know where she ran off to. How will you find her?”

  I raised my brows. “You have no confidence in your abilities, Sven. Remember, I’ve learned from the best.”

  I could almost see him cursing himself. He had always rubbed that in my face when my attention wandered, pinching my ears when I was still two heads shorter than he was, reminding me I had the best teacher and I shouldn’t squander his valuable time. Of course, we both knew the irony of that. He was right. I did have the best. Sven taught me well. I was given to him as apprentice at eight, became a cadet at twelve, pledged at fourteen, and was a fully appointed soldier by sixteen. I had spent more years under Sven’s tutelage than I had with my own parents. I was an accomplished soldier, due in no small part to him, excelling in all my training, which only made it all the more biting. I was probably the most untried soldier in history.

  Sven’s lessons had included drills on royal military history—the accomplishments of this ancestor or that—and there were many. The royals of Dalbreck had always had military credentials, including my father. He rose legitimately to the rank of general while his own father still sat on the throne, but because I was the only heir to the only heir, my soldiering had been greatly limited. I didn’t even have a cousin to replace me. I rode with a company but was never allowed on the front lines, the heat of battle long cooled by the time I was brought onto any field, and even then they surrounded me with the strongest of our squad as extra insurance against flares.

  To compensate, Sven had always given me double doses of the dirtiest and lowliest jobs of our squad to quell any rumblings about my favored status, from mucking the stables to shining his boots to loading and carrying the dead off the field. I’d never seen resentment in my fellow soldiers’ faces, or heard it on their lips, but I had seen plenty of their pity. An untried soldier, no matter how expertly trained, was no soldier at all.

  Sven mounted his horse and rode alongside me. I knew he wouldn’t come far. As much as he blustered about my plans—because he was bound by duty to do just that—he was also obligated by the strong bond we had forged through our years together.

  “How will I know where you are?”

  “You won’t. Now, that’s a thought, isn’t it?”

  “And what shall I tell your parents?”

  “Tell them I’ve gone off to the hunting lodge to sulk for the summer. They should like that. A nice safe haven.”

  “The whole summer?”

  “We’ll see.”

  “Something could happen.”

  “Yes it could. I hope it does. You’re not making your case any better, you know?”

  I watched him out of the corner of my eye, surveying my gear, a sign he was truly resigned to my vanishing into the unknown. If I weren’t heir to the throne, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought. He knew he had prepared me for the worst and the unexpected. My skills, at least in training exercises, had been well proved. He grunted, signaling his reluctant approval. Ahead was a narrow ravine where two horses could no longer ride abreast, and I knew that would be his point of departure. The day was already wearing thin.

  “Will you confront her?”

  “No. I probably won’t even speak to her.”

  “Good, better that you don’t. If you do, watch your R’s and L’s. It will peg your region.”

  “Already noted,” I said to assure him I’d thought of everything, but that detail had escaped me.

  “If you need to send me a message, write it in the old tongue in case it’s intercepted.”

  “I won’t be sending any messages.”

  “Whatever you do, don’t tell her who you are. A Dalbreck head of state intervening on Morrighan soil could be construed as an act of war.”

  “You mistake me for my father, Sven. I’m not a head of state.”

  “You’re heir to the throne and your father’s representative. Don’t make matters worse for Dalbreck or your fellow soldiers.”

  We rode silently.

  Why was I going? What was the point if I wasn’t going to bring her back or even speak to her? I knew these thoughts were spinning in Sven’s head, but it wasn’t what he imagined. I wasn’t angry because she’d thought of bolting before I did. I’d thought of it long ago, when the marriage was first proposed by my father, but he had convinced me the union was for the good of Dalbreck and everyone would look the other way if I chose to take a mistress after the marriage. I was angry because she’d had the courage to do what I hadn’t. Who was this girl who thumbed her nose at two kingdoms and did as she pleased? I wanted to know.

  As we neared the ravine, Sven broke the silence. “It’s the note, isn’t it?”

  A month before the wedding, Sven had delivered a note to me from the princess. A secret note. It was still sealed when Sven handed it to me. His eyes had never seen the contents. I had read it and ignored it. I probably shouldn’t have.

  “No, I’m not going because of a note.” I gave a short tug on the reins and stopped, turning to face him. “You do know, Sven, this isn’t really about Princess Arabella.”

  He nodded. It had been a long time coming. He reached out and patted my shoulder and then turned his horse back toward Dalbreck without another word. I continued down the ravine, but after a few miles, I reached into my vest and pulled the note from the inner pocket. I looked at the hastily scrawled letters. Not exactly a royal missive.

  I should like to inspect you

  before our wedding day.

  I tucked the note back into my pocket.

  And so she shall.<
br />
  There is one true history

  And one true future.

  Listen well,

  For the child sprung from misery

  Will be the one to bring hope.

  From the weakest will come strength.

  From the hunted will come freedom.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER FOUR

  THE ASSASSIN

  I’d gladly do it myself, but I need to return to my duties in Venda. You’ll be in and out in a day. She’s only a royal, after all. You know how they are. And only seventeen at that. How hard could it be to find her?

  I had smiled at the Komizar’s summation of royals, but an answer wasn’t necessary. We both knew it would be easy. A panicked prey doesn’t worry about leaving a messy trail. The Komizar had done my job many times. He was the one who had trained me.

  If it will be easy, why can’t I go? Eben had complained.

  This job is not for you, I had told him. Eben was eager to prove himself. He was skilled with both their language and a knife, and being small and barely twelve, he could pass for a child, especially with his mournful brown eyes and cherub face, which had the advantage of disarming suspicions. But there was a difference between killing in battle and slitting a girl’s throat as she slept. He wasn’t ready for it. He might hesitate when he saw her startled eyes. That was the hardest moment, and there could be no hesitation. No second chances. The Komizar had made that clear.

  An alliance between Morrighan and Dalbreck could make all of our efforts futile. Even worse, the girl is said to be a Siarrah. We may not believe in such magical thinking, but others do, and it might embolden them or make our own people fearful. We can’t take a chance. Her flight is their bad luck and our good fortune. Slip in, slip out—your specialty. And if you can make it look like the work of Dalbreck, so much the better. I know you’ll fulfill your duties. You always do.

 
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