The kiss of deception, p.30
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.30

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  “You’re a poor liar, Lia.”

  I glared sideways at him. “No, actually I can be a very good one, but some lies require more time to spin. You should know about that. You’re so skilled at spinning, after all.”

  He didn’t respond for a long while, then suddenly blurted out, “I’m sorry, Lia. I couldn’t tell you we were leaving.”

  “Or about the bridge?”

  “What was to be gained? It would only make it harder for you.”

  “You mean harder for you.”

  He pulled on his reins and stopped my horse too. Frustration sparked in his eyes. “Yes,” he admitted. “Harder for me. Is that what you wanted to hear? I don’t have the choices you think I do, Lia. When I told you I was trying to save your life, that wasn’t a lie.”

  I stared at him. I knew he believed what he was saying, but that still didn’t make it true. There are always choices. Some choices are just not easy to make. Our gazes remained locked until he finally huffed out an annoyed grunt, clicked his reins, and we continued on.

  The narrow valley stretched for a few more miles and then we made a long, arduous descent on a trail that zigzagged down the mountain. From our first open vantage point, I saw flat land stretching for miles below us, seemingly to the ends of the earth, but this time instead of desert, it was grassland, green and gold grass as far as the eye could see. It shimmered in undulant waves.

  On the northern horizon, I saw shimmering of another sort, a white glistening line like the afternoon sun on the sea and just as far-reaching.

  “The wastelands,” Kaden said. “Mostly white barren rock.”

  Infernaterr. Hell on earth. I had heard of it. From a distance, it didn’t look so terrible.

  “Have you ever been there?”

  He nodded toward the other riders. “Not with them. This is as close as they’ll go. Only two things are said to dwell in the wastelands—the ghosts of a thousand tormented Ancients who don’t know they’re dead and the hungry packs of pachegos that gnaw on their bones.”

  “Does it cover the whole northern country?”

  “Almost. Even winter doesn’t visit the wastelands. It hisses with steam. They say it came with the devastation.”

  “Barbarians believe in the story of the devastation too?”

  “It is not your exclusive realm, princess, to know of our origins. Vendans have their stories too.”

  His tone was not lost on me. He resented being called a barbarian. But if he could play such a heavy hand with the term royal, tossing it in my face like a handful of mud, why should he expect different from me?

  Once we were down from the mountains, the air became warmer again, but at least there was always a breeze sweeping across the plain. For such a great expanse, we came across very few ruins, as if they’d all been swept away by a force greater than time.

  When we made camp that night, I gave them the option of untying my hands so I could relieve myself or riding next to me for the remainder of the journey with my clothing soiled. Even barbarians had lines they chose not to cross, and Griz untied me. They didn’t bind me again. They had made their point, an exacting reminder that I was a lowly prisoner and not a guest along for the ride and I had better keep my hands to myself.

  The next few days brought more of the same landscape, except when we passed an area where the grass was burned away like a giant scorched footprint. Only a few unburned bundles of straw and some lumps of indiscernible remains were left behind. Green sprigs shot up between the burned stubble, already trying to erase the scar.

  No one said anything, but I noticed Eben look away. It didn’t seem possible that this had been a settlement in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone build a home way out here? More likely it was the result of lightning or an untended vagabond campfire, but I wondered about the few lumps of rot that were melting into the black footprint.

  Barbarian.

  The word was suddenly tasteless in my mouth.

  * * *

  Several days out, we came upon the substantial ruins of an enormous city, or what was left of one. It rolled out almost as far as I could see. The strange foundations of the ancient town rose above the grass, but none of them were more than waist high, as if one of the giants from my story had used his scythe to evenly mow it all down. I could still see hints of where streets had once run through the stubble of ruins, but now they were covered with grass, not cobble. A shallow brook trickled down the middle of one street.

  Stranger than the half-mown city and streets of grass were the animals roaming through it. Herds of large deerlike creatures with finely marked coats grazed among the ruins. Their elegant ribbed horns were longer than my arm. When they saw us, they scattered, jumping and clearing the low walls with a dancer’s grace.

  “Luckily they’re skittish,” Kaden said. “Their horns could be deadly.”

  “What are they?” I asked.

  “We call them miazadel—creatures with spears. I’ve only seen their herds here and a little farther south, but there are animals throughout the savanna that you won’t see anywhere else.”

  “Deadly ones?”

  “Some. They say they come from faraway worlds and the Ancients brought them here as pets. After the devastation, they were loosed, and some flourished. At least that’s what one of Venda’s songs says.”

  “That’s where you get your history? I thought you said she was mad.”

  “Maybe not in all things.”

  I couldn’t imagine anyone having one of those exotic creatures as a pet. Perhaps the Ancients really were just a step below the gods.

  I thought about the gods a lot as we traveled. It was as if the landscape demanded it. Somehow they were larger in this never-ending vastness, greater than the gods confined to the Holy Text and the rigid world of Civica. Here they seemed greater in their reach. Unknowable, even for the Royal Scholar and his army of word pickers. Faraway worlds? I felt as if I was already in one, and yet there were more? What other worlds had they created—or abandoned like this one?

  I put two fingers to the air for my own sacrilege, a habit instilled in me, though I did it with none of the sincerity that surely the gods required. I smiled for the first time in days, thinking of Pauline. I hoped she wasn’t worrying about me. She had the baby to think of now, but of course I knew she did worry. She was probably going to the Sacrista every day to offer prayers for me. I hoped the gods were listening.

  We camped amid this once grand but now forgotten city, and while Kaden and Finch went to find some small game for dinner, Griz, Eben, and Malich unsaddled and tended the horses. I said I would gather firewood, though precious little wood looked to be available here. Down by the brook, there was a copse of tall bushes. Maybe I’d find some dry branches there. I brushed my hair as I walked. I had vowed I wouldn’t let them turn me back into the animal I’d been when I had arrived at the vagabond camp, filthy, with matted hair and devouring food with my fingers … little more than animals.

  I paused, my fingers lingering on a knot, twisting it, thinking of my mother and the last time she had brushed my hair. I was twelve. I had done my own hair for years at that point, except for special occasions when an attendant arranged it, but that morning my mother said she’d take care of it. Every detail of that day was still vivid, a rare dawn in January when the sun rose warm and bright, a day that had no right to be so cheerful. Her fingers had been gentle, methodical, her low aimless hum like the wind between the trees making me forget why she was arranging my hair, but then her hand paused on my cheek, and she whispered in my ear, Close your eyes if you need to. No one will know. But I hadn’t closed my eyes, because I was only twelve and had never attended a public execution.

  When I stood between my brothers as a required witness, straight and tall, still as stone, as was expected, my hair perfectly pinned and arranged—with each step, each proclamation of guilt, the tightening of the rope, the pleading and tears of a grown man, the frantic wails, the final call, and then the quick thud
of a floor falling away, a short humble sound that drew the line between his life and death, the last sound he would ever hear—through it all, I kept my eyes open.

  When I returned to my room, I threw the clothes I was wearing into the fire and pulled the pins from my hair. I brushed and brushed, until my mother came in and pulled me to her chest, and I cried, saying I wished I had helped the man escape. Taking another life, she had whispered, even a guilty one, should never be easy. If it were, we’d be little more than animals.

  Was it hard for Kaden to take another life? But I knew the answer. Even through my rage and despair, I had seen his face the night I asked him how many he had killed, the heavy weight that pressed behind his eyes. It had cost him. Who might he have been if he hadn’t been born in Venda?

  I continued walking, working at the knot until it was gone. When I reached the brook, I took off my boots and laid them on a low wall. I wiggled my toes, appreciating the small freedom of cool sand spreading between them. I stepped into the water, bending to cup some in my hands, and I washed the dust from my face. The things that last. I felt the irony among these crumbling ruins. It was still the simplest pleasure of a bath that had outlasted the sprawling greatness of a city. Ruin and renewal ever side by side.

  “Refreshing?”

  I startled and turned. It was Malich. His eyes radiated malice.

  “Yes,” I said. “Finished with the horses already?”

  “They can wait.”

  He stepped closer, and I saw we were hidden from view. He unfastened the buckle of his pants. “Maybe I’ll join you.”

  I stepped out of the water to head back to camp. “I’m leaving. You’ll have it to yourself.”

  He reached out and grabbed my arm, yanking me to him. “I want company, and I don’t want your claws going anywhere they shouldn’t this time.” He jerked both my hands behind me and held them with a single crushing grip until I winced. “Sorry, Princess, am I being too rough?” He pressed his mouth down hard on mine, and his hand groped at my skirt, yanking at the fabric.

  Every inch of him pressed so close I couldn’t lift either leg to kick him off me. I thought my arms would snap as he wrenched them up behind me. I twisted and finally opened my mouth wide enough against his to bite down on his lip. He howled and released me, and I fell backward to the ground. His face contorted in rage as he came at me again cursing, but he was stopped by a bellowing shout. It was Griz.

  “Sende ena idaro! Chande le varoupa enar gado!”

  Malich held his ground, putting his hand to his bleeding lip, but after a few heated breaths, he stomped away.

  Griz put his hand out to help me up. “Be careful, girl. Don’t turn your back on Malich so easily,” he said in clear Morrighese.

  I stared at him, more shocked at his speech than his kindness. He kept his hand extended, and I hesitantly took it.

  “You speak—”

  “Morrighese. Yes. You’re not the only one with secrets, but this one will remain between us. Understood?”

  I nodded uncertainly. I had never expected to share a secret with Griz, but I’d take his advice and not turn my back on Malich again, though now I was far more curious why Griz hid his knowledge of Morrighese when the others openly spoke it. Clearly they didn’t know of his ability. Why did he reveal it to me at all? A slip? There wasn’t time to ask. He was already tramping back toward camp.

  When Kaden and Finch returned with two hares for dinner, Kaden noticed Malich’s swollen lip and asked what had happened.

  Malich only briefly glanced my way and said it was the sting of a wasp.

  Indeed it was. Sometimes the smallest animal inflicts the greatest pain. He was in a fouler mood than usual for the rest of the night and lashed out at Eben for fawning over his horse. Kaden took a look at the horse’s leg, carefully examining the hoof that Eben had been checking again and again.

  “He raised it from a foal,” Kaden explained to me. “Its front fetlock is tender. Maybe just a strained muscle.”

  In spite of Malich’s jabs, Eben continued to check on the horse. It reminded me of how he was with the wolves. The boy was more connected to animals than people. I walked over to look at the horse’s leg and touched Eben’s shoulder, hoping to counter Malich’s harsh words with more hopeful ones. He whipped around and growled at me like a wolf, drawing his knife.

  “Don’t touch me,” he snarled.

  I backed away, remembering that though he might look like a child, even one who might forget himself from time to time and listen to a story around a campfire, an innocent childhood was not something he had ever known. Was he destined to be like Malich, who boasted how easy it had been to kill the coachman and Greta? Their deaths had cost Malich nothing more than a few thin arrows.

  That night Kaden laid his bedroll close to mine, whether to protect me or Malich I wasn’t sure. Even with my bandaged fingers, Malich had taken the brunt of our mutual animosity, though certainly this afternoon he had intended to even the score. If Griz hadn’t come along, it could easily have been me with the bruised and swollen face, or worse.

  I rolled over. Even if I ended up starved in the middle of nowhere, as Kaden predicted, I had to get away. Malich was dangerous enough, but soon I’d be in a city with thousands more like him.

  We can’t always wait for the perfect timing. Pauline’s words seemed truer now than ever.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-ONE

  KADEN

  We stopped midday at a shallow watering hole to fill our canteens and water the horses. Lia walked along the dry streambed that had once fed it, saying she wanted to stretch her legs. She’d been quiet all morning, not in an angry way that I might expect from her, but in some other way, a way that I found more worrisome.

  I followed, watching her as she stooped to pick up a rock and turn it over. She examined its color, then skipped it along the dry bed as if she pictured it skimming along water.

  “Three skips,” I said, imagining along with her. “Not bad.”

  “I’ve done better,” she answered, holding up her bandaged fingers.

  She stopped to slide her boot along a sandy patch, noting the gold glitter of the sand. Her eyes narrowed. “They say the Ancients pulled metals more precious than gold from the center of the earth—metals they spun into giant lacy wings that flew them to the stars and back.”

  “Is that what you’d do with wings?” I asked.

  She shook her head. “No. I’d fly to the stars, but I’d never come back.” She picked up a handful of the sparkling sand and let it sift from her fist to the ground as if trying to catch a glimpse of its hidden magic.

  “Do you believe all the fanciful stories you hear?” I asked. I stepped closer and closed my hand gently around her fist, the warm sand slowly escaping between our fingers.

  She stared at my hand clasped on hers, but then her gaze gradually rose to mine. “Not all stories,” she said softly. “When Gwyneth told me an assassin was on his way to kill me, I didn’t believe her. I suppose I should have.”

  I briefly closed my eyes, wishing I could bite back my question. When I opened them, she was still staring at me. The last of the sand slid from our fists. “Lia—”

  “When was it, Kaden, that you decided not to kill me?”

  Her voice was still even, soft. Genuine. She really wanted to know, and she hadn’t yet pulled her hand away from mine. It was almost as if she’d forgotten it was there.

  I wanted to lie to her, tell her that I had never planned to kill her, convince her that I’d never killed anyone, to take back my whole life and rewrite it in a few false words, lie to her the way I already had a hundred times before, but her gaze remained fixed, studying me.

  “The night before you left,” I said. “I was in your cottage, standing over your bed as you slept … watching the pulse of your throat with my knife in my hand. I was there longer than I needed to be, and I finally put my knife back in its sheath.… That’s when I decided.”

  Her lashes barely fluttered, and
her expression revealed nothing. “Not when I bandaged your shoulder?” she asked. “Not when we danced? Not when—”

  “No. Just in that moment.”

  She nodded and slowly pulled her fist from mine. She dusted the remaining traces of sand from her hand.

  “Sevende!” Finch called. “The horses are ready!”

  “Coming,” I yelled back. I sighed. “He’s eager to get home.”

  “Aren’t we all?” she answered. The edge had returned to her voice. She turned and walked back to her horse, and though she didn’t say it, I sensed that maybe this time, she had wanted me to lie.

  Let it be known,

  They stole her,

  My little one.

  She reached back for me, screaming,

  Ama.

  She is a young woman now,

  And this old woman couldn’t stop them.

  Let it be known to the gods and generations,

  They stole from the Remnant.

  Harik, the thief, he stole my Morrighan,

  Then sold her for a sack of grain,

  To Aldrid the scavenger.

  —The Last Testaments of Gaudrel

  CHAPTER SIXTY-TWO

  We broke camp before sunup. They said they wanted to reach our next destination well before sundown without any further explanation. I could only wonder if some of the wild animals that Kaden had spoken of weren’t so skittish. We trekked across the flattest part of nowhere, only the occasional distant knoll and malnourished thicket breaking up the endlessness.

  We hadn’t been traveling long through grass that swept just below the horse’s knees, when my chest grew tight. A strange foreboding pressed down on me. I tried to ignore it, but after two miles, it became unbearable, and I stopped my horse, my breaths coming shallow and fast. It is a way of trust. This wasn’t just my apprehension of being dragged across the middle of nowhere. I recognized it for what it was, something mysterious but not magical. Something circling in the air.

 

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