The kiss of deception, p.5
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.5

           Mary E. Pearson
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  Her eyes met mine. This was it. We both understood this was the real beginning we had planned. The one we had both hoped for but weren’t sure could ever be. Now it was here. She smiled and nodded.

  “And you’ll go first,” I added.

  Pauline unpacked our few belongings while I made several trips to fill the tub with hot water. I scrubbed Pauline’s back the way she had scrubbed mine so many times before, but then as she soaked, her eyes heavy with fatigue, I decided I’d go bathe in the creek so she could savor this luxury as long as she wanted. I’d never be able to pay her back for everything she had done for me. This was a small token I could offer.

  After meek protests, she gave me directions to the creek just a short walk behind our cottage, warning me to stay near the shallows. She said there was a small protected pool there that had the cover of thick shrubs. I promised twice to be watchful, even though she had already admitted she had never seen it anything but deserted. At the dinner hour, there was no doubt I would be alone.

  I found the spot, quickly stripped, and left my dirty clothes and a fresh change on the grassy bank. I shivered as I slipped below the surface of the water, but it wasn’t half as cold as the streams of Civica. My shoulders were already warming as I broke the surface again. I drew in a deep breath, a new breath, one I had never taken before.

  I am only Lia now. From this day forward.

  It felt like a baptism. A deeper kind of cleansing. Water trickled down my face and dripped from my chin. Terravin wasn’t just a new home. Dalbreck could have offered that, but there I’d have been only a curiosity in a foreign land, still with no voice in my own destiny. Terravin offered a new life. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. What if I never saw my brothers again? What if I was a failure at this life too? But everything I had seen so far had encouraged me, even Berdi. Somehow, I’d make this new life work.

  The creek was wider than I expected, but I stayed in the calm shallows as Pauline had instructed. It was a clear, gentle pool no more than shoulder deep with slick river rock dotting its bottom. I lay back and floated, my eyes resting on the filigreed canopy of oak and pine. With dusk settling, the shadows deepened. Through the trunks, golden lights began to flicker in the hillside homes as Terravin prepared for the eventide remembrances. I was surprised to find that I listened expectantly for the songs that ushered in the evening throughout all of Morrighan, but only the occasional hint of melody caught on a breeze.

  I will find you …

  In the farthest corner …

  I paused, turning my head to the side to hear better, the burning tone of the words more urgent than any of the holy remembrances of home. I couldn’t place the phrases either, but the Holy Text was vast.

  The melodies vanished, plucked away by a cool breeze, and instead I listened to the whoosh of Berdi’s brush as I vigorously scrubbed my back. My left shoulder burned where soap met wedding kavah, as if a battle raged between the two. With each pass of the brush, I imagined the lion crest of Dalbreck shrinking back in terror, soon to be gone from my life forever.

  I washed away the suds with a quick dip, then twisted around, trying to view the lion’s demise, but the small section of kavah I was able to see in the dim light—the vines swirling around the lion’s claw on the back of my shoulder—still bloomed in all its glory. Ten days ago, I was praising the artisans. Now I wanted to curse them.


  I dropped down into the water and spun, ready to face an intruder. “Who’s there?” I called, trying to cover myself.

  Only an empty forest and silence answered back. A doe perhaps? But where had it gone so quickly? I searched the shadows of the trees, but found no movement.

  “It was only the snap of a twig,” I reassured myself. “Any small animal could have made it.”

  Or maybe a wandering guest of the inn, surprised to have come upon me? I smiled, amused that I may have frightened someone off—before they caught sight of my back, I hoped. Kavahs were a sign of position and wealth, and this one, if examined too closely, clearly spoke of royalty.

  I stepped out of the water, hastily putting on my fresh clothes, and then spotted a small gray rabbit darting behind a tree. A relieved sigh escaped me.

  Only a small animal. Just as I thought.


  After three days of keeping us in hiding, Berdi finally relaxed her tight grip, believing we were true to our word. No one had followed. She had an inn to think of, she reminded us, and couldn’t afford trouble with the authorities, though I couldn’t imagine anyone in a village like Terravin paying us any notice. She slowly let us venture out, running small errands for her, getting cinnamon at the epicurean, thread at the mercantile, and guest soaps for the inn at the soap maker.

  I still had some jewels left over from my wedding cloak, so I could have paid my own way as a guest, but that wasn’t who I wanted to be anymore. I wanted to be engaged, attached to where I lived in the same way everyone else was, not an interloper trading on her past. The jewels remained tucked away in the cottage.

  Walking down to the town center felt like the days of old when my brothers and I used to run freely through the village of Civica, conspiring and laughing together, the days before my parents began limiting my activities. Now it was just me and Pauline. We grew closer. She was the sister I never had. We shared things now that protocol at Civica had made us hold back.

  She told me more stories of Mikael, and the longing within me grew. I wanted what Pauline had, an enduring love that could overcome the miles and weeks that separated her from Mikael. When she said again that he would find her, I believed it. Somehow his commitment radiated in her eyes, but there was no doubt that Pauline was worthy of such devotion. Was I?

  “Is he the first boy you ever kissed?” I asked.

  “Who says I’ve kissed him?” Pauline replied mischievously. We both laughed. Girls of the royal staff were not supposed to indulge in such unrestrained behaviors.

  “Well, if you were to kiss him, what do you think it would be like?”

  “Oh, I think it would taste sweeter than honey.…” She fanned herself as if a memory was making her light-headed. “Yes, I think it would be very, very good, that is, if I were to kiss him.”

  I sighed.

  “What’s the sigh for? You know all about a kiss, Lia. You’ve kissed half the boys in the village.”

  I rolled my eyes. “When I was thirteen, Pauline. That hardly counts. And it was only part of a game. As soon as they realized the danger of kissing the king’s daughter, no boy would come near me again. I’ve had a very long dry period.”

  “What about Charles? Just last summer, his head was constantly turned in your direction. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you.”

  I shook my head. “Only moon eyes. When I cornered him at the last harvest celebration, he scampered away like a frightened rabbit. Apparently he’d received the warning from his parents as well.”

  “Well, you are a dangerous person, you know?” she teased.

  “I very well could be,” I answered and patted the dagger hidden beneath my jerkin.

  She chuckled. “Charles was probably just as afraid of you leading him into another revolt as he was of a stolen kiss.”

  I had almost forgotten my short-lived rebellion—it had been so quickly quashed. When the Chancellor and Royal Scholar decided all students of Civica would engage in an extra hour each day studying selections from the Holy Text, I led a rebellion. We already spent an hour twice a week memorizing endless disconnected passages that meant nothing to us. An additional hour every day, by my way of thinking, was out of the question. At fourteen, I had better things to do, and as it turned out, many others afflicted with this new dictum agreed with me. I had followers! I led a revolt, charging with all of them in tow behind me into the Grand Hall, interrupting a cabinet meeting that was in progress that included all the lords of the counties. I demanded that the decision be reversed or we’d quit our studies altogether, or, I threatened, per
haps we would do something even worse.

  My father and the Viceregent were amused for all of two minutes, but the Chancellor and Royal Scholar were instantly livid. I locked eyes with them, smiling as they seethed. When the amusement faded from my father’s face, I was ordered to my chamber for a month, and the students who followed me were given similar but lesser sentences. My little insurrection died, and the dictum stood, but my brazen act was whispered about for months. Some called me fearless, others, foolish. Either way, from that day forward, many in my father’s cabinet regarded me with suspicion, and that made my month of confinement more than worth it. It was about that time that the reins on my life were drawn in even tighter. My mother spent many more hours schooling me on royal manners and protocol.

  “Poor Charles. Would your father really have done anything about a mere kiss?”

  I shrugged. I didn’t know. But the perception that he would was enough to keep every boy at a safe distance.

  “Don’t worry. Your time will come,” Pauline assured me.

  Yes. It would. I smiled. I was controlling my destiny now—not a piece of paper that matched me with a royal wrinkle. I was free from all of that at last. I picked up my pace, swinging the basket of cheese in my hand. This time my sigh was warm with satisfaction. I was never more certain of my decision to flee.

  We finished our walk back to the inn in silence, each of us wrapped up in our thoughts, as comfortable with the quiet between us as we were the chatter. I was caught by surprise to hear the distant holy remembrances at mid-morning, but perhaps in Terravin traditions were different. Pauline was so consumed in her own thoughts she didn’t seem to hear it at all.

  I will find you …

  In the farthest corner …

  I will find you.

  * * *

  At our insistence, Berdi finally gave us responsibilities beyond errands. I worked hard, not wishing to prove myself a useless royal with no practical skills, though in truth, I had few in the kitchen. At the citadelle I was barely allowed near the pantry, much less permitted to wield a knife against a vegetable. I had never chopped an onion in my life, but I figured with my skill and accuracy with a dagger, my gouged chamber door as evidence, I could master such a simple task.

  I was wrong.

  At least no one mocked me when my slick white onion was catapulted across the kitchen and into Berdi’s backside. She matter-of-factly picked it up from the floor, swished it in a tub of water to wash off the dirt, and threw it back to me. I was able to catch and hold the slimy bugger in one hand, eliciting a subtle nod from Berdi, which brought me more satisfaction than I let anyone know.

  The inn wasn’t overflowing with frills to be tended to, but from chopping vegetables, we graduated to tending the guest rooms. There were only six rooms at the inn, not counting our leaky cottage and the guest bathhouse.

  In the mornings, Pauline and I swept the vacated rooms clean, turned the thin mattresses, left new folded sheets on the bedside tables, and finally placed fresh sprigs of tansy on the windowsills and mattresses to deter the vermin that might want to stay at the inn too—especially the freeloaders who came with travelers. The rooms were simple but cheerful, and the scent of the tansy welcoming, but since only a few rooms were vacated each day, our work there took only minutes. One day Pauline marveled at how zealously I attacked my chores. “They should have put you to work at the citadelle. There were a lot of floors to sweep.”

  How I wished I had been given that choice. I had longed for them to believe I had some other worth than sitting through endless lessons they supposed suitable to a royal daughter. My required attempts at lace making had always resulted in haphazard knots not fit for a fishing net, and my aunt Cloris accused me of deliberately not paying attention. It exasperated her even more that I didn’t deny it. In truth, it was an art I might have appreciated except for the way it was forced upon me. It was as if no one noticed my strengths or interests. I was a piece of cheese being shoved into a mold.

  A fleeting compromise needled me. I remembered that my mother had taken note of my aptitude for language and let me tutor my brothers and some of the younger cadets on the Morrighan dialects, some of them so obscure that they were almost different tongues from that spoken at Civica. But even that small concession was put to an end by the Royal Scholar after I corrected him one day on tense in the Sienese dialect of the high country. He informed my mother that he and his assistants were better qualified to assign such duties. Perhaps here at the inn, Berdi would appreciate my abilities with her far-flung travelers who spoke different languages.

  While I acquired the skill of sweeping easily enough, other chores proved more challenging. I had seen maids at the citadelle turning the washing drums with as little as one hand. I thought it to be an easy task. The first time I tried, I spun the drum and ended up with a faceful of dirty soapy water because I’d forgotten to secure the latch. Pauline did her best to suppress her laughter. Putting the laundry up to dry didn’t prove any easier than washing it. After hanging a whole basket of sheets and standing back to admire my work, a stiff wind came along and sprang them all loose, sending my wooden pegs flying in different directions like mad grasshoppers. Each day’s chores brought new aches to new places—shoulders, calves, and even my hands, which were unaccustomed to wringing, twisting, and pounding. A simple small-town life wasn’t as simple as I thought, but I was determined to master it. One thing court life had taught me was endurance.

  Evenings were the busiest, the tavern filled with townsfolk, fishermen, and guests of the inn eager to close out the day with friends. They came for brew, shared laughter, and an occasional snarl of words that Berdi stepped in and settled roundly. Mostly they came for a simple but good hot meal. Summer’s arrival meant more travelers, and with the annual Festival of Deliverance quickly approaching, the town would swell to twice its usual size. At Gwyneth’s insistence, Berdi finally conceded that extra help was needed in the dining room.

  On our first night, Pauline and I were each given one table only to tend, while Gwyneth managed more than a dozen. She was something to behold. I guessed she was only a handful of years older than us, but she commanded the dining room like a well-seasoned veteran. She flirted with the young men, winking and laughing, then rolled her eyes when she turned to us. For well-dressed men who were a bit older, ones she was sure had more in their purse to lavish on her, her attentions were more earnest, but ultimately there were none she really took seriously. She was only there to do her job, and she did it well.

  She sized up the customers quickly, as soon as they walked through the door. It was a diversion for her, and she happily drew us into her game. “That one,” she would whisper as a squat man walked through the door. “A butcher if I’ve ever seen one. They all have mustaches, you know? And ample guts from eating well. But the hands always tell it all. Butchers’ hands are like ham hocks but meticulously groomed, neat squared nails.” And then, more wistfully, “Lonely types, but generous.” She grunted, like she was satisfied that she had summed him up in seconds. “Probably on his way to buy a pig. He’ll order a lager, nothing more.”

  When he did indeed order a lone lager, Pauline and I burst into giggles. I knew there was much we could learn from Gwyneth. I studied her movements, her chatter with the customers, and her smile carefully. And of course, I studied the way she flirted.

  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.

  —Song of Venda



  I wasn’t sure whether to admire her or plan a slower, more painful death for the royal renegade. Strangling her with my bare hands might be best. Or maybe it would serve justice even better to toy with her and make her squirm first. I had little patience for the self-absorbed leeches who supposed their blue blood entitled
them to special favor—and she had zero favor with me now.

  Because of her, I had eaten more road dust and backtracked more miles than I’d ever admit to my comrades. I should have been gone already, on my way with the deed done, but that was ultimately my own shortcoming. I had underestimated her.

  In her escape, she proved to be more calculating than panicked, leading witnesses to believe she was headed north instead of south, and then she continued to leave deceptive leads. But farmers who imbibe tend to have loose lips and a penchant for bragging on good trades. Now I was following my last lead, a sighting of two people passing down the main street of Terravin with three donkeys, though the riders’ genders were unknown and they were described as filthy beggars. For her own sake, I hoped our clever princess hadn’t done more trading.

  “Ho, there!” I called to a mop-haired boy leading a horse to a barn. “The brew here decent?”

  The boy stopped, like he had to think about it, brushing the hair from his eyes. “Yeah, it’s decent. So I hear.” He turned to leave.

  “What about the food?”

  He stopped again, as though every answer required thought, or perhaps he simply wasn’t eager to unsaddle and brush down his charge. “The chowder’s the best.”

  “Many thanks.” I swung down from my horse. “I wonder, are there mules or donkeys anywhere in town for hire? I need a few to carry some supplies up into the hills.”

  His eyes brightened. “We have three. They belong to one of the workers here.”

  “You think he’d let them out for hire?”

  “She,” he corrected. “And I don’t see why not. She’s only taken them for short rides to town since she got here a few weeks ago. You can check inside with her. She’s serving tables.”

  I smiled. At last. “Thank you again. You’ve been very helpful.” I threw him a coin for his trouble and watched his countenance change. I’d made a trusted friend. No suspicion would be tossed in my direction.

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