The kiss of deception, p.4
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.4

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  Yes, I always met my duty. Far ahead the trail forked, and Eben saw that as his last chance to resume his campaign. “I still don’t see why I shouldn’t be the one to go. I know the language just as well as you.”

  “And all the dialects of Morrighan as well?” I questioned.

  Before he could answer, Griz reached out and cuffed the side of his head. Eben yelped, sending a round of guffaws through the other men. “The Komizar wants him to do the deed, not you!” he shouted. “Quit yer whining!” Eben was silent for the remainder of the ride.

  We reached the point where our paths diverged. Griz and his band of three had their own special skills. They would weave their way through the northernmost portion of Morrighan, where the kingdom had foolishly concentrated its forces. They’d be creating their own special brand of mayhem. Not as bloody as mine, but just as productive. Their work would take considerably longer, though, which meant I’d have a “holiday,” as Griz described it, while I waited for them at a designated camp in the Cam Lanteux for our return trip to Venda. He knew as well as I did that the Cam Lanteux was no holiday.

  I watched as they went their own way, Eben sulking low in his saddle.

  Not a job for you.

  Had I been that eager to please the Komizar when I was Eben’s age?

  Yes.

  It was just a handful of years past, but it seemed like two lifetimes ago.

  The Komizar wasn’t even a dozen years older than I was, hardly a full-grown man himself when he became ruler of Venda. That was when he took me under his wing. He saved me from starving. Saved me from a lot of things I’ve tried to forget. He gave me what my own kind hadn’t. A chance. I’ve never stopped paying him back. There are some things you can never pay back.

  But this would be a first, even for me. Not that I hadn’t slit throats in the dark of night before, but those throats had always belonged to soldiers, traitors, or spies, and I knew their deaths meant my comrades would live. Even so, each time my blade slid across a throat, the startled eyes would steal a part of my soul.

  I would have cuffed Eben myself if he’d brought up the subject again. He was too young to begin losing himself.

  Slip in, slip out. And then on to a holiday.

  They thought themselves

  only a step lower than the gods,

  proud in their power over heaven and earth.

  They grew strong in their knowledge

  but weak in their wisdom,

  craving more and still more power,

  crushing the defenseless.

  —Morrighan Book of Holy Text, Vol. IV

  CHAPTER FIVE

  Terravin was just around the next bend—at least that was what Pauline had said a dozen times. Her excited anticipation became mine as she recognized landmarks. We passed a massive tree that had the names of lovers carved into its bark, then a little farther along, a half circle of stumpy marble ruins that looked like loose crooked teeth in an old man’s mouth, and finally in the distance, a shining blue cistern crowned a hill with a court of junipers surrounding it. These signs meant we were close.

  It had taken us ten days to get this far, but we would have made it sooner if we hadn’t spent two days going out of our way to leave false leads in case my father had trackers hunting us down.

  Pauline had been appalled when I bundled up my costly wedding dress and threw it into a thicket of blackberry brambles, but she was positively mortified when I used my dagger to pry the jewels from my wedding cloak and then sent the mutilated remains downriver tied to a log. She made three signs of penance for me. If the cloak was found by anyone who recognized it, I hoped the presumption would be that I had drowned. For wishing that horrifying news on my parents I should have paid penance of my own, but then I remembered they were not only prepared to send their only daughter away to live with a man she didn’t love, but also to a kingdom they themselves didn’t fully trust. I swallowed the knot in my throat and said nothing but good riddance as the cloak that my mother, my grandmother, and their mothers before them had worn floated away.

  We used the jewels to trade for coin at Luiseveque, a large town about two hours’ ride out of our way—three blue sapphires thrown in for the merchant if he forgot where they came from. It felt deliciously evil and exciting to trade in such a way, and as soon as we were down the road, we burst into laughter at our audacity. The merchant had looked at us as if we were thieves, but since the transaction was in his favor, he said nothing.

  From there we backtracked, and a few more miles down the road, we traveled east again. On the outskirts of a small village we stopped at a farmhouse and traded the surprised farmer our valuable Ravians for three donkeys. We also slipped him a good amount of coin for more silence.

  Two girls arriving in Terravin on grand steeds with the distinctive brand of the Morrighan stables were sure to draw attention, and that was one thing we couldn’t afford. We didn’t need three donkeys, but the farmer insisted the third would be lost without the other two, and we found he was right, as it trailed close behind without even a tug from the rope. Otto, Nove, and Dieci the farmer had called them. I rode Otto, the largest of the three, a big brown fellow with a white muzzle and a long mop of fur between his ears. By now, our riding clothes were so filthy from the hundreds of miles we had covered and our soft leather boots so caked in mud, we were easy to ignore. No one would want to look upon us for long, and that was just the way I wanted it. I wouldn’t have anything interfere with the dream of Terravin.

  I knew we were close now. It was something about the air, something about the light, something I couldn’t name, but it streamed through me like a warm voice. Home. Home. Foolishness, I knew. Terravin had never been my home, but maybe it could be.

  On this last stretch, my gut suddenly jumped with fear that I’d hear something else—the thunder of hooves behind us. What Father’s trackers would do to me was one thing, but what they might do to Pauline was another. If we were caught, I already planned that I’d tell them I had forced Pauline to help me against her will. I just had to convince Pauline to stick to that story too, because she was nothing if not true to the core.

  “There! Look! Through the trees!” Pauline yelled, pointing into the distance. “The sliver of blue! That’s the Bay of Terravin!”

  I strained but couldn’t see anything except thick stands of pine, a scrabble of oak, and the grassy brown hills between them. I urged Otto on, as if such a thing could be done with an animal that only knew one speed. Then as we turned the bend, not only the bay but the whole fishing village of Terravin came into view.

  It was exactly the jewel that Pauline had described.

  My stomach squeezed.

  A half circle of aquamarine bobbed with boats of red and yellow, some with billowing white sails, others with large paddle wheels churning up the water behind them. Still others splashed a trail of foam as oars dipped at their sides. They were all so small from this distance they might have been a child’s toys. But I knew people manned them, that fishermen called to each other, cheering their day’s catch, the wind carrying their voices, sharing their victories, breathing their stories. On the shore where some of them headed was a long wharf with more boats and people as small as ants moving back and forth, up and down, busy with their work. Then, maybe most beautiful of all, surrounding the bay were homes and shops that crept up the hills, each one a different color: bright blue, cherry red, orange, lilac, lime, a giant fruit bowl with the Bay of Terravin at its heart, and finally dark green fingers of forest reached down from the hills to hold the multicolored bounty in its palm.

  Now I understood why it had always been Pauline’s dream to return to the childhood home she had been uprooted from when her mother died. She’d been sent to live with a distant aunt in the north country and then, when that aunt became ill, handed off to yet another aunt she didn’t even know, my mother’s own attendant. Pauline’s life had been one of a sojourner, but at last she was back in the place of her roots, her home. It was a
place I knew with one glance could be my home too, a place where the weight of who I was supposed to be didn’t exist. My joy bobbed unexpectedly. How I wish my brother Bryn were here to see this with me. He loved the sea.

  Pauline’s voice finally broke through my thoughts. “Is something wrong? You haven’t said a word. What do you think?”

  I looked at her. My eyes stung. “I think … if we hurry, we might be able to bathe before dinner.” I slapped Otto’s backside. “First dip!”

  Pauline was not to be outdone, and with a wild cry and prod in his ribs, she got her donkey to race ahead of mine.

  Our reckless license was checked as we turned onto the main thoroughfare that wove through town. We tucked our hair into our caps and pulled them low over our eyes. Terravin was small and out of the way, but not so isolated that it couldn’t be a stopping point for the Royal Guard—or a tracker. But even with my chin held close to my chest, I took it all in. The wonder! The sounds! The smells! Even the clap of our donkeys’ hooves on the red-tiled streets sounded like music. It was so different from Civica in every way.

  We passed a plaza shaded by a giant fig tree. Children jumped rope under its enormous umbrella, and musicians played a flute and a bandoneon, puffing out cheerful tunes for townsfolk who conversed around small tables that lined the perimeter.

  Farther into town, merchandise spilled from stores onto neighboring walkways. A rainbow of scarves billowed in the breeze outside one shop, and at another, crates of fresh shiny eggplant, striped squash, lacy fennel, and fat pink turnips were displayed in neat, vibrant rows. Even the tack shop was cheerfully painted in robin’s-egg blue. The muted tones of Civica were nowhere to be found. Here everything sang with color.

  No one looked at us. We blended in with others who were passing by. We were two more workers on our way home after a long day at the docks, or maybe just tired strangers looking for a friendly inn. In our trousers and caps, we probably looked more like scrawny men. I tried to keep from smiling as I eyed the town that Pauline had described so many times. My smile vanished when I saw three Royal Guards approaching on horseback. Pauline spotted them too and pulled back on her reins, but I whispered a hushed command to her. “Keep going. Keep your head down.”

  We proceeded forward, though I wasn’t sure either of us breathed. The soldiers were laughing with each other, their horses moving at a leisurely pace. A cart driven by another soldier lumbered behind them.

  They never glanced our way, and Pauline delivered a relieved sigh after they passed. “I forgot. Dried and smoked fish. They come once a month from an eastern outpost for supplies, but mostly for fish.”

  “Only once a month?” I whispered.

  “I think so.”

  “Then our timing is good. We won’t have to worry about them again for a while. Not that they’d know me anyway.”

  Pauline took a moment to survey me and then pinched her nose. “No one would know you, except perhaps the swine back home.”

  As if on cue, Otto hawed at her remark, making us both laugh, and we raced for a warm bath.

  * * *

  I held my breath as Pauline knocked on the small back door of the inn. It immediately swung open, but only the brief wave of a woman’s arm greeted us as she rushed away and yelled over her shoulder, “Put it over there! On the block!” She was already back at a huge stone hearth, using a wooden paddle to pull flat bread from the oven. Pauline and I didn’t move, which finally caught the woman’s attention. “I said to—”

  She turned and frowned when she saw us. “Hmph. Not here with my fish, eh? A couple of mumpers, I suppose.” She motioned to a basket by the door. “Grab an apple and a biscuit and be on your way. Come back after the rush, and I’ll have some hot stew for you.” Her attention was already elsewhere, and she yelled to someone who called to her from the front room of the inn. A tall, gangly boy stumbled through a swinging door with a burlap cloth in his arms, the tail of a fish wagging out the end. “Loafhead! Where’s my cod? I’m to make stew with a crappie?” She grabbed the fish from him anyway, slapped it down on the butcher block, and with one decisive chop, whacked its head off with a cleaver. I guessed the crappie would do.

  So this was Berdi. Pauline’s amita. Her auntie. Not a blood aunt, but the woman who had given Pauline’s mother work and a roof over her head when her husband had died and the bereft widow had a small infant to feed.

  The fish was skillfully gutted and boned in a matter of seconds and plopped into a bubbling kettle. Pulling her apron up to wipe her hands, she looked back over at us, one eyebrow raised. She blew a salt and pepper curl from her forehead. “You still here? I thought I told you—”

  Pauline shuffled forward two steps and pulled her cap from her head so that her long honey hair tumbled down around her shoulders. “Amita?”

  I watched the old woman’s expressive face go blank. She took a step closer, squinting. “Pollypie?”

  Pauline nodded.

  Berdi’s arms flew open, and she swooped Pauline into her bosom. After much hugging and many half-finished sentences, Pauline finally pulled away and turned toward me. “And this is my friend Lia. I’m afraid we’re both in a bit of trouble.”

  Berdi rolled her eyes and grinned. “Couldn’t be anything that a bath and a good hot meal won’t take care of.”

  She darted over to the swinging door, shoving it open and shouting orders. “Gwyneth! Gone for five. Enzo will help you!” She was already turning away before the door swung back and I noted how, for a woman of some years who carried a hefty sampling of her own cooking around her midsection, she was spry on her feet. I heard a faint groan waft through the door from the front room and the clatter of dishes. Berdi ignored it. She led us out the back door of the kitchen. “Loafhead—that’s Enzo—he’s got potential, but he’s as lazy as the day is long. Takes after his shiftless father. Gwyneth and I are working on it. He’ll come around. And help is hard to come by.”

  We followed her up some crumbling stone steps carved into the hill behind the inn, and then down a winding leaf-littered path to a dark cottage that sat some distance away. The forest encroached just behind it. She pointed to a huge iron vat simmering on an elevated brick hearth. “But he does manage to keep the fire going so guests can have a hot bath, and that’s the first thing you two need.”

  As we drew closer, I heard the soft rush of water hidden somewhere in the forest behind the cottage, and I remembered the creek that Pauline had described, the banks where she had frolicked with her mother, skipping stones across its gentle waters.

  Berdi led us into the cottage, apologizing for the dust, explaining that the roof leaked and the room was mostly used for overflow now, which was what we were. The inn was full, and the only alternative was the barn. She lit a lantern and pulled a large copper tub that was tucked in the corner out into the middle of the room. She paused to wipe her forehead with the hem of her apron, for the first time showing any sign of exhaustion.

  “Now, what kind of trouble could two young girls like you be in?” Her gaze dropped to our middles, and she quickly added, “It’s not boy trouble, is it?”

  Pauline blushed. “No, Amita, nothing like that. It’s not even trouble, exactly. At least, it doesn’t have to be.”

  “Actually, the trouble is mine,” I said, stepping forward and speaking for the first time. “Pauline has been helping me.”

  “Ah. So you have a voice after all.”

  “Maybe you should sit so I can—”

  “You just spill it out, Lia. It is Lia, right? There’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”

  She was planted near the tub, bucket in hand, ready for a quick explanation. I decided I would give it to her. “That’s right. Lia. Princess Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, to be exact.”

  “Her Royal Highness,” Pauline added meekly.

  “Ex Royal Highness,” I clarified.

  Berdi cocked her head to the side, as though she hadn’t heard quite right,
then paled. She reached for the bedpost and eased down onto the mattress. “What’s this all about?”

  Pauline and I took turns explaining. Berdi said nothing, which I suspected was uncharacteristic of her, and I watched Pauline grow uneasy with Berdi’s silence.

  When there was nothing left to say, I stepped closer. “We’re certain no one followed us. I know a little about tracking. My brother’s a trained scout in the Royal Guard. But if my presence makes you uncomfortable, I’ll move on.”

  Berdi sat for a moment longer, as if the truth of our explanation was just catching up to her, one of her brows rising in a curious squiggled line. She stood. “Blazing balls, yes, your presence makes me uncomfortable! But did I say anything about moving on? You’ll stay right here. Both of you. But I can’t go giving you—”

  I cut her off, already reading her thoughts. “I don’t expect or want any special attention. I came here because I want a real life. And I know that includes earning my keep. Whatever work you have for me to do, I’ll gladly do it.”

  Berdi nodded. “We’ll figure that part out later. For now we need to get you two bathed and fed.” She wrinkled her nose. “In that order.”

  “One other thing.” I unbuttoned my shirt and turned around, dropping the fabric to my waist. I heard her draw in a breath as she viewed my elaborate wedding kavah. “I need to get this off my back as soon as possible.”

  I heard her step closer and then felt her fingers on my back. “Most kavahs don’t last more than a few weeks, but this one … it may take a little longer.”

  “They used the best artisans and dyes.”

  “A good soaking bath every day will help,” she offered. “And I’ll bring you a back brush and strong soap.”

  I pulled my shirt on again and thanked her. Pauline hugged her before she left and then grabbed the bucket from the floor. “You first, Your Highness—”

  “Stop!” I snatched the bucket from her hand. “From this day forward, there is no more Your Highness. That part of my life is gone forever. I’m only Lia now. Do you understand, Pauline?”

 
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