The kiss of deception, p.31
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.31

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  For the first time in my life, I knew with certainty that it was the gift. It had come to me unsummoned. It wasn’t just a seeing, or a hearing, or any of the ways I had heard the gift described. It was a knowing. I closed my eyes, and fear galloped across my ribs. Something was wrong.

  “What is it now?”

  I opened my eyes. Kaden frowned as if he was tired of the game I played.

  “We shouldn’t go this way,” I said.

  “Lia—”

  “We don’t take orders from her,” Malich snapped. “Or listen to her babble. She only serves herself.”

  Griz and Finch looked at me uncertainly. They waited for something to materialize, and when nothing did, they clicked their reins lightly. We continued at a slower pace for another mile, but the oppressive weight only grew heavier. My mouth went dry, and my palms were damp. I stopped again. They were several paces ahead of me when Griz stopped too. He lifted up in his saddle, then roared, “Chizon!” He snapped his horse to the left.

  Eben kicked the sides of his horse, following Griz. “Stampede!” he yelled.

  “North!” Kaden shouted to me.

  They whipped their horses to full gallop, and I followed. A dust cloud rose in the east, thunderous and dark, immense in its width. Whatever was coming, we would barely outrun it, if we could at all. It rumbled toward us, furious and terrible in its power. Now! I thought. A fist pummeled in my chest. Now, Lia! It was suicide to turn around but I pulled hard on the reins. My horse reared back, and I changed direction, heading south. There was no turning back. I would either make it or I wouldn’t. In the split seconds before Kaden realized I wasn’t behind him, it would be too late for him to turn and follow.

  “Yah!” I yelled. “Yah!”

  I watched the horizon roll like a growing black wave. Terror clutched me, it was coming so fast. The landscape ahead became a jostled blur as we raced to beat the enormous cloud. I spotted an elevated knoll and aimed for it, but it was still so far away. The horse knew the terror too. It pulsed through both of us, blinding hot. Sevende! Hurry! Go! Soon it wasn’t just a single dark mass coming at us but a thrashing jumble of bodies, churning legs, and lethal horns. “Yah!” I screamed. The heat of death bore down on us.

  We aren’t going to make it, I thought. The horse and I would both be crushed. The roar became deafening, smothering even my own screams. All I could see was blackness, dust, and a gruesome end. The knoll. Higher ground. And then thunder boomed at our backs, and I braced for the crush of hoof and the gore of horn, but they charged past … behind us. We made it. We made it. I kept the horse going until I was sure we were a safe distance away, and once we were on top of the knoll, I stopped.

  I turned to see what the crushing mass of hoof and horn actually was, because I wasn’t yet sure. The sight took my breath away. A wide stream of bison, reaching east as far as I could see, pounded past us.

  They moved as one unified deadly force, but as my heart slowed, I saw the details of the animals, magnificent in their own right. Enormous humped shoulders, curved white horns, bearded chins, and anvil heads streamed past. They bellowed a moaning war chant. I swallowed, struck with astonishment. It was a sight I would never have seen in Morrighan and one I’d probably never see again.

  I looked over the charging animals, trying to see to the other side, but clouds of dust obscured my view. Did the others all make it? I thought of Eben and his horse’s tender leg. But surely if I had made it to safety and with farther to go, they did too.

  I wouldn’t have long before the bison that separated us were gone and Kaden would become the one who was charging after me. I turned my horse and disappeared over the knoll, widening the divide between us.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-THREE

  KADEN

  It was getting dark. I knew she had headed south, and I knew she’d head for the woods. It might give her the cover she wanted, but it was the last place she should go. We always circled wide around the plateau forests because we knew what lurked there. If we didn’t get to her before dark, she wouldn’t survive the night.

  Griz and Finch were convinced she only separated from us in the confusion. I knew better. They were equally sure that she had saved all our lives and her gift was as real as the ground beneath their feet. I wasn’t sure if it was coincidence or a genuine knowing. If you fake a gift as often as she had, your timing is certain to get lucky eventually.

  I stopped, surveying the line of trees in the south that stood like a forbidding wall. I was chilled, thinking of her riding through it. We had lost her tracks a mile back, and I could only guess where she had entered the dark forest. We split up, agreeing to meet back on the savanna at dusk. I prayed it wouldn’t be Malich who found her. I wasn’t sure who she’d fare better with—him or the beasts of the forest.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-FOUR

  It was a strange forest. Gray moss hung down in curly strands from black trees with trunks as wide as a wagon. The horse balked at first, refusing to go in, but I goaded him forward. Shrill calls echoed around me, shivering into what sounded like laughter. I searched the treetops, looking for the birds that made the sounds, but saw only shadows.

  I didn’t have time to think about being afraid, only about what I had to do next. Food and fire. I wouldn’t die in the wilderness as Kaden predicted. I stopped the horse inside a circle of five massive trees, then swung down and untied my saddlebag. I dumped out the contents. All I had were the books, a vial of balm, chiga weed, some scraps of cloth for bandages, a brush, a string of leather to tie back my hair, a bobbin of silk for my teeth, one threadbare change of underclothes, and my tinderbox. Not a morsel of food. Kaden had packed my hoarded stash on his horse, maybe to discourage any thoughts of escape. I looked at the flint and contemplated lighting a fire. I didn’t want to be in this ghoulish forest in the dark, but in the wilderness, a fire would shine like a beacon. I surveyed the hollow. The thickness of the trunks and forest beyond would hide a small fire.

  My stomach rumbled at the thought of no food. I couldn’t allow myself to lose the strength I had gained at the vagabond camp, but with no weapon for hunting even the smallest of game, I would have to forage. I knew what lived in the rot of a forest floor, and only the thought of being too weak to flee made me search for it. My jaws instantly throbbed, and my saliva was sour on my tongue. I found a fallen decaying log and rolled it over. It wriggled with creamy, fat grubs.

  Regan had dared Bryn to swallow one once, saying that the cadets in training had to do so. Bryn wasn’t one to be outdone, so he gulped the plump, squirming maggot down. Within a few seconds, he retched. But I knew they could sustain a person as well as roasted duck.

  I took a deep shuddering breath. Zsu viktara. I squeezed my eyes shut, imagining myself riding back home strong enough to find and help Walther, strong enough to marry a prince I loathed, strong enough to forget Rafe. Strong enough. I opened my eyes and scooped a handful of wiggling grubs into my hand.

  “I’m strong enough to eat these and imagine they’re duck,” I whispered. I tossed my head back, plopping them into my mouth and swallowing.

  Duck. Slimy duck.

  I took another handful.

  Wiggling duck.

  I washed them all down with a swig from my canteen. Juicy roasted duck. I’d make myself come to love grubs if I had to. I swallowed again, making sure they stayed down.

  Che-ah!

  I jumped. Another shadow flitted across the canopy. What was skulking up there? I set about gathering dry sticks and moss, then fanned the spark from the flint into a flame. The strange shrieks cut through the air, and I thought that whatever animal made them had to be near.

  I added more wood to the fire and pulled the Song of Venda to my lap to keep my mind busy. I used the book Dihara had given me to help me translate the text. The formation of letters in the two books differed. The ones in Dihara’s primer had a boxy appearance, while the ones in the Song of Venda had scrolls and curves, and one letter looped into the next, making it hard to k
now where each letter stopped and another began. I stared, thinking it was hopeless, and then the letters seemed to move of their own accord right before my eyes, rearranging themselves into a pattern I could recognize. I blinked. It seemed obvious now.

  The similarities appeared and the unknown letters revealed themselves. The curves, the missing accents, the key. It made sense. I translated in earnest. Word by word, sentence by sentence, I raced back and forth between the primer and the old Vendan text.

  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.

  The old men shall dream dreams,

  The young maids will see visions,

  The beast of the forest will turn away,

  They will see the child of misery coming,

  And make clear the path.

  From the seed of the thief,

  The Dragon will rise,

  The gluttonous one, feeding on the blood of babes,

  Drinking the tears of mothers.

  His bite will be cruel, but his tongue cunning,

  His breath seductive, but his grip deadly,

  The Dragon knows only hunger, never sated,

  Only thirst, never quenched.

  It was little wonder that the ruler of Venda wanted her mad babblings destroyed. They were bleak and made no sense, but something about them must have disturbed the Scholar. Or was I wasting my time? Maybe it was only the gold jeweled box that was of value to him? Could it be worth his neck and position to be a thief of the court? But I was nearly finished translating the grim song, so I continued.

  From the loins of Morrighan,

  From the far end of desolation,

  From the scheming of rulers,

  From the fears of a queen,

  Hope will be born.

  On the far side of death,

  Past the great divide,

  Where hunger eats souls,

  Their tears will increase.

  The Dragon will conspire,

  Wearing his many faces,

  Deceiving the oppressed, gathering the wicked,

  Wielding might like a god, unstoppable,

  Unforgiving in his judgment,

  Unyielding in his rule,

  A stealer of dreams,

  A slayer of hope.

  I read on, and with each word, my breaths grew shorter. When I got to the last verse, cold sweat sprang to my face. I raced through the loose papers again, searching for cataloging notes. The Scholar was meticulous about such things. I found them and reread them. These ancient books had come into his hands twelve years after I was born. It was impossible. It made no sense.

  Until one comes who is mightier,

  The one sprung from misery,

  The one who was weak,

  The one who was hunted,

  The one marked with claw and vine,

  The one named in secret,

  The one called Jezelia.

  I had never heard of anyone else in Morrighan with the name Jezelia. No one in the royal court had either. That was what my father had so strongly objected to—its lack of precedent. Where did my mother get it? Not from this book.

  I slipped the shirt from my shoulder and turned to see what I could of my kavah. The stubborn claw and vine were still there.

  Greater stories will have their way. I shook my head. No, not this one. There was a reasonable explanation. I shoved the books back into my saddlebag. I was tired and spooked by this strange forest, and I had rushed through the translations. That was all. There were no such things as dragons, certainly not ones who drank the blood of babies. It was babble. I was finding meaning where there was none. I’d look again tomorrow in the bright of day, and the rules of reason would make it clear.

  I put a large branch on the fire and settled down on my bedroll. I forced my mind to think of other things. Things that made sense. Happier things. I pictured Pauline, the beautiful baby she would have, Gwyneth and Berdi helping her and their lives that continued on in Terravin. At least someone was living the life that had been my dream. I thought about how much I would love to have a taste of Berdi’s fish stew now; to hear the blowing of horns in the bay; the chatter of tavern customers; the braying of Otto; to smell salt on the air; and to watch Gwyneth size up a new customer.

  The way she had sized up Rafe.

  I was becoming stronger in some ways but weaker in others. Ever since that first day I met you, I’ve gone to sleep every single night thinking about you.

  I closed my eyes and nestled into my bedroll, praying morning would come soon.

  CHAPTER SIXTY-FIVE

  PAULINE

  He died in battle, my mother had told me, much as Mikael had. I had never known my father, but I had always imagined him to be the kind of man who would wrap his arms around me, gently soothe away my troubles, love me without condition, and protect me at any cost. That was how I would describe my baby’s own father to her. But I knew all fathers weren’t like that. Lia’s wasn’t.

  The king was a distant man, more monarch than father, but surely his blood wasn’t ice, nor his heart stone. Lia needed help. She’d been gone for weeks now, and we’d had no word from Rafe. Though I was sure he cared about her, Rafe and his secretive band of men didn’t inspire my confidence, and with each passing day, my suspicions of them grew. I couldn’t wait any longer. The Viceregent had been sympathetic toward Lia. He was our only hope. Surely he had the king’s ear and could bend it toward forgiveness and then help.

  Berdi wouldn’t let me travel alone, and Gwyneth eagerly joined me in my quest. How Berdi would manage the tavern with only Enzo for help I didn’t know, but right now we all agreed that Lia’s safety was most important. Barbarians had her. I feared what they may have done to her already.

  And there were the dreams too. For a week now, they had plagued me, fleeting glimpses of Lia riding on a galloping horse, and with each stride, she faded away until she wasn’t there at all. Gone, a misty eidolon, except for her voice, a high, keening cry that cut through the wind.

  I knew I risked arrest myself by going back, since I had helped Lia escape, but I had to take the chance. Though I feared the possibility of prison, I was just as afraid of walking the streets of Civica again and seeing the last places where Mikael and I had been together, the place where we had conceived our child together—the child he would never know. It was already dredging up my feelings of loss. His ghost would be present on every street I passed.

  The trek on the donkeys was taking far longer than the one Lia and I had made to Terravin on our Ravians, but in my condition, riding fast and hard wasn’t an option anyway. “It’s not much farther,” I told Gwyneth when we stopped to water the donkeys. “Just another two days.”

  Gwyneth brushed her thick red locks from her face, and her eyes narrowed, looking down the road still ahead of us. “Yes, I know,” she said absently.

  “How would you know? You’ve been to Civica?”

  She snapped back to attention, tugging on Dieci’s reins. “Just a guess,” she said. “I think you should let me speak with the Chancellor when we get there. I might have more power of persuasion than you.”

  “The Chancellor hates Lia. He’d be the last person to speak to.”

  She tilted her head to the side and shrugged. “We’ll see.”

  CHAPTER SIXTY-SIX

  RAFE

  “Bite down!” I commanded.

  We couldn’t afford for him to scream out, not with the way sound echoed through these rocky hills. I shoved a leather strap between his teeth. Sweat poured down his forehead and dotted his upper lip.

  “Hurry,” I said.

  Tavish shoved the needle into Sven’s cheek and pulled the bloody gut through the other side of the wound that ran from his cheekbone to his jaw. It was too long and too gaping to leave to a poultice. I held Sven’s arms in
case he flinched, but he remained still—only his eyelids fluttered.

  We had encountered a patrol of Vendans. The barbarians were becoming bolder and more organized. I had never seen a Vendan patrol numbering more than a handful this far out from the Great River. There were plenty of small rogue bands of three or four, fierce and violent—that was their way—but not an organized and uniformed patrol. It didn’t bode well for any of the kingdoms.

  The treacherous Great River had always been our ally. A thin chain drawbridge that could barely support a single horse was their only way across. Were they breeding horses on this side of the river now? The patrol we encountered had fine, well-trained mounts.

  We took them all down, but not before Sven suffered the first blow. He was riding ahead of us and was knocked from his horse before I could even draw my sword, but then I moved swiftly, taking down his attacker and three more who followed behind him. In minutes, the Vendans littered the ground at our feet, a dozen in all. Jeb’s face was still spattered in blood, and I could feel the crusted smears on mine.

  Orrin brought over Sven’s flask of red-eye as Tavish had ordered. I removed the leather strap clenched between Sven’s teeth and gave him a sip to help numb the pain.

  “No,” Tavish said. “It’s for his face—to clean the wound.”

  Sven started to protest, and I shoved the strap back into his mouth. He would rather suffer infection than see his precious spirits spilling from his cheek to the ground. Tavish shoved the needle in one last time and closed off the wound. Sven groaned, and when Tavish poured the strong draft over the sewn gash, his whole body shuddered with pain.

  He spit the strap out. “Damn you,” he said weakly.

  “You’re welcome,” Tavish answered.

  We were two miles from the Great River on the only path that led into the Vendan kingdom. We’d been hunkered down in a rocky encampment that faced west, the direction we knew they’d be coming from. It was at a juncture above the route where they’d have to pass, but we’d been here for two days now with no sign of them. They couldn’t have beaten us here. We had ridden until both we and our horses were at the point of collapse. Today we only left our position to scout out a better vantage point farther from the border, but we ran into the patrol. After throwing their bodies into a ravine, we took their horses with us and hoped they weren’t expected to return anytime soon.

 
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