The kiss of deception, p.33
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.33

           Mary E. Pearson
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  I’ll remember them all. I will never forget.

  Kaden, Finch, and others helped dig the graves. Without them, I never would have been able to bury all the dead, but it was because of them that a whole patrol had been massacred. One of those soldiers who helped dig may have been the one who plunged the sword in Walther’s chest. Or severed the arm from Cyril. Should I feel thankful for their help? Mostly I couldn’t feel at all. Every feeling within me had drained away like the blood of the fallen and was left behind on the valley floor.

  My eyes were dry, and my raw blistered hands felt no pain, but two days after Walther’s slaughter, something rattled loose inside me. Something hard and sharp I had never felt before, like a chipped piece of rock that turns over and over again, tossed in the rim of a wheel. It rattled aimlessly but with regular rhythm. Maybe it was the same something that had rattled inside Walther when he held Greta in his lap. I was certain whatever had broken loose would never be anchored in me again.

  Word had spread quickly among the ranks that I had the “gift,” but I quickly learned that not every Vendan had reverence for it. Some laughed at the backward ways of the Morrighese. The chievdar was chief among the scoffers, but there were far more who ogled me with wariness, afraid to look me straight in the eye. The vast majority congratulated Kaden and the others on the fine prize they had brought back to the Komizar. A real princess of the enemy.

  They didn’t know his true task was to slit my throat. I looked at Kaden without expression. He met my blank gaze. He wanted to be proud among his comrades. Venda always came first, after all. He nodded at those who patted his back and acknowledged their praise. His eyes, which I’d once thought held so much mystery, held none for me now.

  The next day, Eben’s horse grew worse. I heard Malich and Finch tell him he was going to have to kill it, that there were plenty of other horses in the captured booty for him to ride. Eben swore to them in a voice rising like a child’s that it was only a strained muscle and the lameness would pass.

  I said nothing to any of them. Their concerns weren’t mine. Instead I listened to the rattle, the chipped rock tumbling inside me. And late at night as I stared at the stars, sometimes a whisper broke through, one I was too afraid to believe.

  I will find you.

  In the farthest corner, I will find you.

  CHAPTER SEVENTY

  I brushed my hair. Today was the day we would enter Venda. I wouldn’t arrive looking like an animal. It still seemed important. For Walther. For a whole patrol. I wasn’t one of them. I never would be. I pulled at the tangles, sometimes ripping at my hair, until it lay smooth.

  Surrounded by hundreds of soldiers, I knew there was little chance of escape. Maybe there never had been one, unless the gods themselves decided to plunge another star to earth and destroy them all. How were these who sat proud upon their horses beside me any better than the Ancients, whom the gods had destroyed long ago? What held the gods back now?

  We rode behind wagons piled high with swords, saddles, and even the boots of the fallen. The bounty of death. When I buried my brother, I hadn’t even noticed that his sword and the finely tooled leather baldrick that he wore across his chest were already gone. Now they jostled somewhere in the wagon ahead.

  I listened to the jingle of the booty, the jingle, jingle, and the rattle within me.

  Kaden rode on one side of me, Eben on the other, with Malich and the others just behind us. Eben’s horse stumbled, but managed to correct itself. Eben jumped from his back and whispered to him. He led him along with his hand clutched in the horse’s mane. We had only gone a few more paces when the horse stumbled again, this time staggering twenty yards off the road, with Eben chasing after him. The horse fell onto his side, his front legs no longer able to support him. Eben desperately tried to talk him upright again.

  “Take care of it,” Kaden called to Eben. “It’s time.”

  Malich came up alongside me. “Do it now!” he ordered. “You’re holding everyone up.” Malich unclasped the leather sheath that held his long trench knife from his belt and threw it to Eben. It fell to the ground at Eben’s feet. Eben froze, his eyes wide as he looked from it back to the rest of us. Kaden nodded to him, and Eben slowly bent over and retrieved it from the ground.

  “Can’t someone else do it?” I asked.

  Kaden looked at me, surprised. It was the most I had said in three days. “It’s his horse. It’s his job,” he answered.

  “He has to learn,” I heard Finch say behind me.

  Griz mumbled agreement. “Ja tiak.”

  I stared at Eben’s terrified face. “But he raised him from a foal,” I reminded them. They didn’t respond. I turned around to Finch and Griz. “He’s only a child. He’s already learned far too much, thanks to all of you. Aren’t any of you willing to do this for him?”

  They remained silent. I swung down from my horse and walked into the field. Kaden yelled at me to get back on my horse.

  I whipped around and spat. “Ena fikatande spindo keechas! Fikat ena shu! Ena mizak teevas ba betaro! Jabavé!” I turned back to Eben, and he inhaled a sharp breath when I snatched the sheathed knife from him and pulled the blade free. A dozen bows were raised and arrows drawn by onlooking soldiers, all aimed at me. “Have you said good-bye to Spirit yet?” I asked Eben.

  He looked at me, his eyes glassy. “You know his name?”

  “I heard you whisper it in camp. They were wrong, Eben,” I said, tossing my head in the direction of the others. “There is no shame in naming a horse.”

  He bit his lower lip and nodded. “I said my good-byes.”

  “Then turn around,” I ordered. “You don’t have to do this.” He was shaken and did as I told him.

  I stepped over to the horse. His back legs shuddered, spent from the effort of trying to do the work of his front legs too. He had worn himself out but was still as wide-eyed as Eben.

  “Shhh,” I whispered. “Shhh.” I knelt beside him and whispered of meadows and hay and a little boy who would always love him, even if he didn’t know the words for it. My hand caressed his soft muzzle, and he calmed under my touch. Then, doing what I had seen Walther do on the trail, I plunged the knife into the soft tissue of his throat and gave him rest.

  I wiped the blade on the meadow grass, pulled the saddlebag from the dead horse, and returned to Eben. “It’s done,” I said. He turned around, and I handed him his bag. “He feels no more pain.” I touched Eben’s shoulder. He looked at my hand resting there and then back at me, confused, and for a brief moment, he was an uncertain child again. “You can take my horse,” I said. “I’ll walk. I’ve had enough of my present company.”

  I went back to the others and held Malich’s sheathed knife out to him. He cautiously reached down and took it from me. The soldiers lowered their bows in unison.

  “So you know the choice words of Venda,” Malich said.

  “How could I not? Your limited filth is all I’ve heard for weeks.” I began untying the saddlebag from my horse.

  “What are you doing?” Kaden asked. I looked at him long and hard, the first time my eyes had met his with purpose in days. I let the moment draw out, long enough to see him blink, know. This wasn’t the end of it.

  “I’m walking the rest of the way,” I said. “The air is fresher down here.”

  “You didn’t do the boy any favors,” he said.

  I turned and looked at the others, Griz, Finch, Malich. Slowly surveyed the hundreds of soldiers who surrounded us, still waiting for the caravan to continue, and circled around until my gaze landed back on Kaden, slow and condemning. “He’s a child. Maybe someone showing him compassion is the only real favor he’s ever known.”

  I pulled my saddlebag from my horse, and the procession moved forward. Once again, I followed the clatter, clank, and jingle of the wagon ahead, and the loose rattle within me grew louder.

  * * *

  Steps and miles blurred. The wind gusted. It tore at my skirts, whipped at my hair, and t
hen a strange stillness blanketed the landscape. Only the memory of Eben’s horse and its last shuddering breaths ruffled the air, the horse’s hot gusts receding, quieter, weaker. A last gust. A last shudder. Dead. And then the eyes of a dozen soldiers ready to kill me.

  When the arrows were drawn and aimed, for a moment, I had prayed the soldiers would shoot. It wasn’t pain I feared, but no longer feeling it—no longer feeling anything.

  I had never killed a horse before, only seen it done. Killing is different from thinking about killing. It takes something from you, even when it’s a suffering animal. I didn’t do it only to relieve Eben of a burden. I did it for myself as much as for him. I wasn’t ready to give up every last scrap of who I used to be. I wouldn’t stand by and watch a child butcher his own horse.

  I was heading into a different world now, a world where the rules were different, a world of babbling women pushed from walls, children trained as killers, and skulls dangling from belts. The peace of Terravin was a distant memory. I was no longer the carefree tavern maid Rafe had kissed in a sleepy seaside village. That girl was forever gone. That dream stolen. Now I was only a prisoner. Only a—

  My steps faltered.

  You’ll always be you, Lia. You can’t run from that. The voice was so clear it seemed that Walther was walking at my side, speaking his words again in greater earnest. You’re strong, Lia. You were always the strongest of us.… Rabbits make good eating, you know?

  Yes. They do.

  I wasn’t a carefree tavern maid. I was Princess Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan.

  The one named in secret.

  And then I heard something.

  Silence.

  The loose chip inside me that I’d thought would never be still, tumbled, caught, its sharp edge finding purchase in my flesh, a hot fierce stab in my gut. The pain was welcome.

  The last verses of the Song of Venda resounded in my head. From the loins of Morrighan …

  How could my mother have known? I had wrestled with that question since I had read the verses, and the only answer was she didn’t know. The gift guided her. It needled into her, whispered. Jezelia. But as with me, the gift didn’t speak clearly. You were always the strongest of us. That’s what worried Mother. She didn’t know what it meant, only that it made her fear her own daughter.

  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,

  I looked down at my shoulder, the torn fabric revealing the claw and the vine, now blooming in color just the way Natiya had described. We’re all part of a greater story too … one that transcends wind, time … even our own tears. Greater stories will have their way.

  Jezelia. It was the only name that ever felt true to who I was—and the one everyone refused to call me, except for my brothers. Maybe they were only the babblings of a madwoman from a long-ago world, but babble or not, with my last dying breath, I would make the words true.

  For Walther. For Greta. For all the dreams that were gone. The stealer of dreams would steal no more, even if it meant killing the Komizar myself. My own mother may have betrayed me by suppressing my gift, but she was right about one thing. I am a soldier in my father’s army.

  I glanced up at Kaden riding beside me.

  Maybe now it was I who would become the assassin.

  CHAPTER SEVENTY-ONE

  RAFE

  “What the hell…?”

  It was Jeb’s watch. His remark was so slow and quiet I thought he’d seen another curiosity like the herd of golden-striped horses we encountered yesterday.

  Orrin walked over to see what he was gawking at. “Well … hang me.”

  They had our attention now, and Sven, Tavish, and I rushed to the rocky lookout. I went cold.

  “What is it?” Tavish asked, even though we all knew what it was.

  It wasn’t a ragtag patrol of barbarians. Or even a large organized platoon of them. It was a regiment riding ten wide and at least sixty deep.

  Except for one.

  She walked alone.

  “That’s her?” Tavish asked.

  I nodded, not trusting my voice. She was surrounded by an army. We weren’t just facing five barbarians. One after another, I heard them slowly exhale. These weren’t the barbarians we knew. Not the ones who had always been easily pushed back behind the Great River. There was no way we could take on that many men in a direct confrontation without all of us being killed and Lia too. I stared, watching each step she took. What was she carrying? A saddlebag? Was she limping? How long had she been walking? Sven put his hand on my shoulder, a gesture of comfort and defeat.

  I whipped around. “No! It’s not over.”

  “There’s nothing we can do. You have eyes. We can’t—”

  “No!” I repeated. “I will not let her cross that bridge without me.” I paced over to the horses and back again, my fist grinding in my palm, searching for an answer. I shook my head. She wasn’t crossing without me. I looked at their grim faces. “We’re doing it,” I said. “Listen.” I laid out a rushed plan, because there wasn’t time to devise another one.

  “It’s insanity,” Sven balked. “It will never work!”

  “It has to,” I argued.

  “Your father will have my neck!”

  Orrin laughed. “I wouldn’t worry about the king. Rafe’s plan’s going to kill us all first.”

  “We’ve done it before,” Tavish said to me with a knowing nod. “We can do it again.”

  Jeb had already retrieved my horse and handed me the reins. “What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Go!”

  “It’s half-assed!” Sven shouted as I slid my foot into the stirrup.

  “I know,” I said. “That’s why I’m counting on you to figure out the other half.”

  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.

  Until one comes who is mightier.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER SEVENTY-TWO

  Fear was a curious thing.

  I thought there was none left in me. What did I have left to fear? But as Venda came into view, I felt fear’s barbed chill at my neck. Framed between the jutting rocky hills that we passed through, a thing rose on the horizon in a hazy gray mist. I couldn’t quite call it a city. It breathed.

  As we drew near, it grew and spread like an eyeless black monster rising from smoking ashes. Its haphazard turrets, scaled reptilian stone, and layers of convoluted walls spoke of something labyrinthine and twisted lurking behind them. This wasn’t just any faraway city. I felt the tremor of its pulse, the keen of its dark song. I saw Venda herself sitting high on the gray walls before me, a broken apparition singing a warning to those who listened from below.

  I sensed myself slipping away already, forgetting what used to matter to me. It was a lifetime ago I left Civica with what I had thought was a simple dream, for someone to love me for who I really was. During those few short days with Rafe, I naïvely thought I had the dream in my grasp. I wasn’t that girl with a dream anymore. Now, like Walther, I only had a mounting cold desire for justice.

  I looked ahead at the growing monster. Like the day I had prepared for my wedding, I knew I faced the last of the steps that would keep here from there. There would be no going back. Once I crossed into Venda, I would never see home again. I want to pull you close and never let you go. I was beyond the farthest corner now. Beyond ever seeing Rafe again. Soon I’d be dead to everyone except the mysterious Komizar who was able to exact obedience from a brutal army. Like Walther’s sword and boots, I was his prize of war now, unless he decided to finis
h the job that Kaden had shirked. But maybe before that happened, he’d discover I wasn’t quite the prize anyone expected me to be.

  The caravan stopped at the river. It was more than a great river. It was a roiling abyss, roaring and sending up the mist I saw from afar. Dampness slicked soil and stone. How we would ever navigate across it, I didn’t know, but then the mass of bodies on the other side hailed our approach. They squirmed past black-streaked walls and began pulling on ropes attached to iron wheels of colossal proportions. Even over the roar of the river, I heard the shouts of a taskmaster synchronizing their pulls. Countless bodies moved together and chanted in a low rumble, and slowly, with each heave, a bridge rose up from the mist, dripping with an unholy welcome. Their last effort hurled the bridge into place with an ominous clanging boom.

  Kaden swung down from his horse to stand next to me, watching as workers hurried to secure the bridge chains. “Just do as I say, and everything will be all right. Are you ready?” he asked.

  How could I ever be ready for this? I didn’t answer him.

  He turned, taking hold of both of my arms. “Lia, remember, I’m only trying to save your life.”

  I returned his gaze without blinking. “If this is saving my life, Kaden, I wish you would stop trying so hard.”

  I saw the pain in his face. The thousands of miles we had traveled had changed me, but not in the way he had hoped. His grip remained secure, his eyes scrutinizing my face, his gaze pausing on my lips. He reached up and touched them, his thumb sliding gently along the ridge of my lower lip like he was trying to wipe the words from my mouth. He swallowed. “If I had let you go, they’d have sent someone else. Someone who would have finished the job.”

 
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