The kiss of deception, p.6
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.6

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  The boy went on his way, and I walked my horse to the far side of the inn where there were hitching posts for tavern customers. After all the dusty miles I had covered, I’d had a lot of time to wonder about this girl I was finally about to encounter. Was she so afraid of marriage that fleeing into the unknown seemed a better prospect? What did she look like? I didn’t have a description beyond her age and that she was rumored to have long dark hair, but I figured a royal wouldn’t be hard to spot.

  She was only seventeen. Just a couple of years younger than myself, but a lifetime away in the lives we’d lived. Still, a royal serving tables? The girl was full of surprises. It was unfortunate for her that, by virtue of her birth, she presented a threat to Venda. But mostly I wondered, if she truly had the gift, had she seen me coming?

  I tied my horse to the last post with a jerk knot, giving him a wide berth from the other horses, and spotted a fellow priming a pump and dunking his head under the flow of water. Not a bad idea before I ventured inside, and if I could buy him a drink, so much the better. Solitary travelers always drew more attention.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  THE PRINCE

  A wedding kavah. It took only a little inquiry—and a few coins—to pry the information from the stable boy’s lips. He was the sly sort, knowing her secret might prove of worth to him. I threw him a few more coins and a stern warning that the words would never pass his lips again. The secret was to remain ours alone. After a slow perusal of the sheathed sword hanging from my saddle, he seemed at least bright enough to know I wasn’t one to be crossed. He couldn’t describe the kavah, but he had seen the girl furiously trying to scrub it from her back.

  Furious. How well I knew the feeling. I was no longer amused or curious. Three weeks of sleeping on hard, rocky ground had taken care of that. It seemed for days I was always just missing her, only a step behind, then losing the trail entirely before finding it—over and over again. Almost as if she was playing a game with me. From the vagabonds who had found her wedding cloak and were patching together their tent with it, to merchants in the city with jewels to trade, to cold campfires off rarely used trails, to a filthy torn gown made from fine lace woven only in Civica, to the hoofprints left on muddy banks, I had followed the meager crumbs she left me, becoming obsessed with not letting her win at the game Sven had spent too many years training me for.

  I didn’t like being played with by a seventeen-year-old runaway. Or maybe I was just taking it too personally. She was throwing in my face just how much she wanted to get away from me. It made me wonder if I would have been as clever or as determined if I had actually acted on my thoughts the way she did. I felt beneath my vest for the only communiqué I had from her, one filled with so much gall I still had a hard time imagining the girl who wrote it. Inspect me. We’d see who did the inspecting now.

  I dunked my head beneath the flow of cold water again, trying to cool off in more ways than one. What I really needed was a good long bath.

  “Save some of that for me, friend.”

  I whipped my head up, shaking the drops from my hair. A fellow about my age approached, his face as streaked as mine with hard days on the road.

  “Plenty for all. Long journey?”

  “Long enough,” he answered, plunging his head beneath the water after he had pumped a steady stream. He scrubbed his face and neck with his hands and stood, offering his wet hand. I tried to size him up. He certainly seemed friendly enough, but something about him made me wary too, and then as his eyes glanced at my belt and weapon at my side, I knew he was just as carefully sizing me up—the kind of scrutiny a trained soldier might employ—but with the necessary casual regard. He wasn’t just a merchant at the end of a long journey.

  I took his hand and shook it. “Let’s go inside, friend, and wash some of the dust from our throats as well.”

  CHAPTER NINE

  Apparently Pauline and I had proved our worth and our skills, because tonight without warning, Berdi graduated us to any table in need, along with a stiff reminder that we were not to sample the harder brews we delivered. Pauline took the news in stride, but I felt I had crossed a threshold. Yes, it was only serving tables, but the inn and the people who frequented it were all Berdi had. This was her life. She had entrusted me with something dear to her. Any doubts she had that I was a fumbling royal who would wilt under the slightest pressure were gone. I wouldn’t let her down.

  The tavern was a large open room. The swinging kitchen door was on the back wall, and the adjacent wall held the watering station, as Berdi called it. It was the heart of the tavern, a long burnished pine bar with taps for the various brews that were connected to barrels in the cooling cellar. A dark alcove at the end of the bar led to the cellar steps. The tavern seated close to forty—and that didn’t include those who leaned in a corner or perched on one of the empty barrels that lined one wall. It was still early evening, but the tavern bustled with activity, and only two empty tables remained.

  Luckily, the fare was simple and the choices few, so I had no trouble delivering the right brew or dish to the right customer. Most requested the flat bread and fish stew that Berdi was known for, but her smoked venison with fresh garden greens and melon were delicious too, especially now that melon was at its peak. Even the chef at the citadelle would have taken note. My father tended to favor elaborate fatty roasts with rich sauces, wearing the evidence around his belly. Berdi’s dishes were a welcome relief from those weighty meals.

  Enzo seemed to have disappeared, and every time I went into the kitchen, Berdi muttered under her breath about the useless loafhead, but I noted that he had delivered cod today, so her stew was at its best.

  “Eh, but look at the dishes!” she said, waving a spoon in the air. “He left to stable a horse and hasn’t come back. I’ll be serving stew in chamber pots if he doesn’t get his miserable—”

  The back door swung open, and Enzo lumbered in, grinning like he had found a chest of gold. He gave me a strange glance, his brows rising in high arcs as if he had never seen me before. He was an odd boy. He didn’t strike me as simple, but maybe Berdi called him loafhead with good reason. I left to deliver some brews and a platter of venison as Berdi let loose on Enzo, ordering him straight to the tub of dishes.

  Just as I walked through the swinging door into the dining room, some new customers entered. In a heartbeat, Pauline was at my side, trying to push me back through the door, nearly making me drop my platter. “Go back into the kitchen,” she whispered. “Hurry! Gwyneth and I can handle them.”

  I looked the handful of soldiers over as they sauntered to a table and sat down. I recognized none. They weren’t likely to recognize me either, especially in my new role here, not to mention the tavern attire that Berdi had given us to wear when serving. Most of my hair was neatly tucked into my lace cap, and a princess wearing a drab brown skirt and apron didn’t look like a princess at all.

  “I will not,” I told her. “I can’t hide every time someone walks through that door.” Pauline still pushed. I swept past her, wishing to get this over with, once and for all. I dropped the platter of venison off at the proper table, and with two brews still in my other hand, I made my way over to the soldiers. “What can I get you kind gentlemen?” Pauline was frozen in terror by the kitchen door.

  One of the soldiers looked me over, his eyes slowly gliding from my ankles to my waist, taking time to peruse the crisscross lacing of my jerkin, and finally resting solemnly on my face. His eyes narrowed. My heart skipped, and I felt color rise in my cheeks. Did he recognize me? Had I made a horrible miscalculation? His hand reached out and circled about my waist, drawing me closer before I could react.

  “I have exactly what I want already.”

  The other soldiers laughed, and my heart strangely quieted. I recognized this game. I had seen Gwyneth fend off such advances many times. This I could handle. Being recognized as the fugitive princess I could not. I leaned forward, feigning interest. “Soldiers in His Majesty’s Guard
, I understand, have strict diets. You should be careful in what you partake.” At that moment, I managed to spill half the brew from the mugs in my hand into his lap.

  He let go of my waist and jumped back, sputtering over his wet lap like a whimpering schoolboy. The other soldiers roared their approval at the show. Before he could lash out at me, I said softly and I hoped seductively, “I’m so sorry. I’m new at this, and my balancing skills are few. It might be safest for you to keep your hands to yourself.” I placed the two half-empty mugs on the table in front of him. “Here, have these as an apology for my clumsiness.” I turned and left before he could answer, but heard a rumble of guffaws follow after me.

  “Well done,” Gwyneth whispered in my ear as I passed, but when I turned, Berdi was planted large and immovable in the kitchen door, hands on hips, her lips a thin tight line. I swallowed. All was well with the soldiers. I didn’t know why she should be so perturbed, but I made a silent vow to be less punitive with my spillage.

  I returned to the tap to pour another round of ale for the rightful customers of the brew given to the soldier, pulling two fresh mugs from beneath the counter. In a brief moment of calm, I paused and watched Pauline look longingly at the door. It was nearing the end of the month, just barely, and still a bit soon for Mikael to have made it all the way from Civica, but her anticipation showed every time the door swung open. She had been looking sallow this past week, the normally rosy hue of her cheeks gone along with her appetite, and I wondered if one could truly become lovesick. I filled the mugs to the brim and prayed that, for Pauline’s sake, the next customer to come through the door would be Mikael.

  In the farthest corner …

  My eyes shot up. Holy remembrances in a tavern? But the melody disappeared as quickly as it had wafted by, and all I could hear was the raucous rumble of conversation. The door of the inn swung open, and now with the same anticipation as Pauline, my eyes became riveted on who would walk through.

  I felt my shoulders slump, right along with Pauline’s. She turned her attention back to the customers she was serving. I knew by her reaction it was only more strangers, neither one Mikael, but as I got a closer look, my own attention perked up. I watched the newest arrivals step inside and search the crowded room, their eyes roaming over customers and corners. One small table remained available, and it was only a few feet from them. If they were looking for free seats, I didn’t know how they missed it. I sidled closer to the shadows of the alcove to watch them. Their gazes both stopped abruptly on Pauline’s back as she chatted with some elderly gents in the corner.

  “Now, that’s an interesting pair,” Gwyneth said, swishing in beside me.

  I couldn’t deny they had captured my attention. Something about the way—

  “Fisherman on the left,” she proclaimed. “Strong shoulders. Dark sun-kissed hair in need of a comb. Nicks on his hands. A bit on the somber side. Not likely to tip well. Blond one on the right, a trader of some sort. Pelts maybe. He swaggers a bit as he walks. They always do. And look at his hands, they’ve never seen a fishing net nor plow, only a swift arrow. Likely a better tipper, since he doesn’t get into town often. This is his big splurge.”

  I would have laughed at Gwyneth’s summation, but the newcomers had my rapt attention. They stood out from the usual customers who stepped through Berdi’s doors, both in stature and demeanor. They struck me as neither fisherman nor trader. My gut told me they had other business here, though Gwyneth had far more experience at this than I did.

  The one she supposed to be a fisherman because of his dark hair streaked with the sun and scratched hands had a more calculating air about him than the fishermen I had seen in town. He had an unusual boldness too, in how he held himself, as if he was confident of every step he took. As for his hands, nicks can be gotten in any number of ways, not just from hooks and gills. I’d suffered several on the trip here by reaching hastily into brambles. True, his hair was long and unkempt, falling to his shoulders, but he may have had a difficult journey and had nothing to tie it back.

  The blond fellow was of nearly identical build, perhaps an inch shorter and a bit wider in the shoulders, his hair only brushing his collar. He was as sober-faced as his friend in my estimation, with a brooding quality that clouded the air about him. There was far more on his mind than just a cool cider. Maybe it was only fatigue after a long journey or maybe something more significant. Perhaps he was out of work and hoping this was the town that might provide some? Maybe that was why they were both slow to sit down? Maybe they hadn’t a single coin between them. My imagination was getting as vivid as Gwyneth’s.

  I watched the dark-haired one say something to the other, pointing to the empty table, and they sat, but little more passed between them. They seemed more interested in their surroundings than each other.

  Gwyneth elbowed me. “Stare too long at those two, and your eyes will fall out.” She sighed. “A few years too young for me, but you, on the other hand—”

  I rolled my eyes. “Please—”

  “Look at you. You’re lathered like a horse at the end of a race. It’s not a crime, you know, to notice. They’ll have two dark ciders each. Trust me.” She reached out and grabbed the replacement brews I had poured. “I’ll deliver these, and you take care of them.”

  “Gwyneth! Wait!” But I knew she wouldn’t. In truth, I was glad for the push. Not that they had me lathered in the least. They were both a bit on the rumpled and dusty side. They intrigued me, that was all. Why shouldn’t I indulge in Gwyneth’s little game and see if I served a fisherman and a pelt trader? I took two more mugs from the shelf, the last clean ones, and hoped Enzo was making progress on the dishes. I pulled on the tap and let the dark golden cider race its way to the rim, noting the small flutter in my stomach.

  I grabbed the handles of both mugs in one hand and made my way around the bar, but then caught sight of Pauline. The wet-lapped oaf who had grabbed me had a firm grasp on her wrist. I watched her, a painful smile on her face, trying to be polite while attempting to twist away. The soldier chuckled, enjoying watching her squirm. My face flashed with heat, and almost instantly I was by her side, staring into the eyes of the salacious snake.

  “You’ve already been gently warned once, sir. The next time, instead of a wet lap, I’ll be planting these mugs in your thick skull. Now, stop your asinine conduct, behave like an honorable member of the King’s Royal Guard, and remove your hand at once.”

  This time there was no slapping of knees, no round of laughter. The whole room had fallen silent. The soldier glared at me, furious for being shamed so publicly. He slowly released his grip on Pauline, and she hurried away to the kitchen, but my eyes remained locked on him. His nostrils flared, and I imagined he was wondering if he could throttle me in a room full of people. My heart hammered wildly, but I forced a slow, dismissive smile to my lips.

  “Carry on,” I said to the room at large and turned swiftly to avoid having any more words with him. In only a handful of paces, I found myself stumbling into the newcomers’ table. Their stares took me further unaware, and my breath caught in my chest. The intensity I had seen from afar was more apparent up close. For a moment, I was frozen. The fisherman’s icy blue eyes cut through me, and the trader’s stormy brown ones were more than unsettling. I wasn’t sure if they were angry or startled. I tried to roll right past my awkward entrance and gain the upper hand.

  “You’re new. Welcome. I must warn you, things aren’t always so lively here at the inn, but there’ll be no extra charge for the entertainment today. I hope dark ciders are to your liking. I surmised they’d suit you.” I set the ciders on the table. They both stared without speaking.

  “I can assure you both, I’ve never crowned anyone with a mug. Yet.”

  The trader’s eyes narrowed. “That’s reassuring.” He grabbed his mug and brought it to his lips, his dark eyes never leaving mine as he sipped. Rivers of heat spread through my chest. He set his mug down and smiled at last, a very pleasant satisf
ied smile that gave me much-needed relief. “The cider is fine,” he said.

  “Is that an Eislandese accent I detect? Vosê zsa tevou de mito loje?”

  His hand bumped his mug and sloshed cider over the side. “No,” he answered firmly.

  No to what? It wasn’t an accent, or no he hadn’t traveled far? But he seemed agitated by the question, so I didn’t press further.

  I turned to the fisherman, who still hadn’t spoken. He had what I imagined could be a kind face if he could only manage a genuine smile, but instead a smug grin was pasted across it. He was set on scrutinizing me. I bristled. If he disapproved of my treatment of the soldier, he could be on his way right now. I’d grovel no more. It was his turn to speak—at least a thank-you for the cider.

  He slowly leaned forward. “How did you know?”

  His voice hit me like a hard slap to my back, forcing the air out of my lungs. I stared at him, trying to get my bearings. The sound reverberated in my ears. It was hauntingly familiar, yet it was fresh too. I knew I’d never heard it before. But I had.

  “Know?” I said breathlessly.

  “That the cider would suit us?”

  I tried to cover my muddled state with a quick answer. “It was Gwyneth, actually. Another server here. It’s a diversion of hers. She’s quite good at it most of the time. Besides guessing drinks, she guesses professions. She guessed you to be a fisherman and your friend to be a trader.”

  I found my voice getting away from me, one word spilling onto the next. I bit my lip, forcing myself to stop. The soldiers hadn’t turned me into a chattering ninny. How had these two managed it?

  “Thank you for the cider, Miss…?” The trader paused, waiting.

  “I answer to Lia,” I said. “And you would be?”

  After some thought, he finally answered, “Kaden.”

 

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