The kiss of deception, p.7
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.7

           Mary E. Pearson
 

  I turned to the fisherman, waiting for his introduction. Instead, he simply rolled my name over his tongue like it was a piece of corn stuck between his teeth. “Lia. Hm.” He slowly rubbed a week’s worth of scruffy stubble on his cheek.

  “Kaden and…?” I said, smiling between gritted teeth. I’d be polite if it killed me. I couldn’t afford any more scenes tonight with the customers, not with Berdi looking over my shoulder.

  His cool gaze lifted to mine, his chin angling to the side in a challenge. Small lines fanned out from his eyes as he smiled. “Rafe,” he answered.

  I tried to ignore the hot coal burning in my gut. His face may not have been kind when he smiled, but it was striking. I felt my temples flush hot, and I prayed he couldn’t see it in the dim light. It was an unusual name for these parts, but I liked its simplicity.

  “What can I bring you tonight, Kaden and Rafe?” I rattled off Berdi’s fare, but instead they both asked me about the girl I intervened for.

  “She seems young to be working here,” Kaden noted.

  “Seventeen, same as me. But certainly more innocent in certain ways.”

  “Oh?” Rafe replied, his short response filled with innuendo.

  “Pauline has a tender heart,” I replied. “Whereas I’ve learned to harden mine against rude inquiries.”

  He grinned. “Yes, I can see that.” In spite of his baiting, I found his grin disarming, and I forgot the response that had been on the tip of my tongue. I turned my attention back to Kaden, who I was relieved to find staring at his mug instead of me, as if in deep thought.

  “I’d recommend the stew,” I offered. “It seems to be the favorite here.”

  Kaden looked up and smiled warmly. “Then the stew it will be, Lia.”

  “And I’ll go with the venison,” Rafe said. Little surprise. I’d look for the toughest cut for him. The chewing might wipe the smug grin from his face.

  Gwyneth was suddenly at my elbow. “Berdi would like your help in the kitchen. Now. I’ll take care of these gents from here.”

  Of course, we both knew the last thing that Berdi needed was my help cooking or chopping anything in the kitchen, but I nodded and left Rafe and Kaden to Gwyneth.

  I was banished to the kitchen for the rest of the evening after a hushed but heated lecture from Berdi on the perils of getting on the authorities’ bad side. I argued valiantly on the side of justice and decency, but Berdi argued just as hard on the side of practicalities like survival. She carefully danced around the word princess, because Enzo was within earshot, but her meaning was clear—that here my status didn’t amount to a fat cow patty, and I had better learn to dampen my imperious fiery tongue.

  For the rest of the evening, Berdi served meals, popping in to give me orders or season a fresh pot of stew, but mostly making sure the soldiers had second helpings—all on the house. I loathed the compromise she made and chopped viciously at my onion.

  Once the third onion was reduced to minced mash and my anger was for the most part spent, my thoughts returned to Rafe and Kaden. I’d never know if either one was a fisherman or pelt trader. By now they were probably far down the road, and I’d never see them again. I thought about Gwyneth and how she flirted with her customers, manipulating them to her will. Had she done the same with them?

  I grabbed a knobby orange tuber from a basket and pounded it down on the butcher block. In less time than the onions, it was mash too, except for the chunks that flew out of control to the floor.

  CHAPTER TEN

  At the end of the evening, when Pauline had returned to our cottage and Enzo and Gwyneth had left for the night, I wearily scraped at the last empty stew pot. Some crusted remains were stubbornly stuck to its bottom.

  I felt like I was back at the citadelle and had been sent to my bedchamber once again. Memories of my most recent banishment taunted me, and I blinked back tears. I will not tell you again, Arabella, you are to hold your tongue! my father had blustered, his face red, and I had wondered if he would hit me, but he had only stormed from my room. We’d been at a court dinner, my father’s entire cabinet present. The Chancellor had sat across from me wearing his silver-trimmed coat, with his knuckles so bejeweled I wondered if he had trouble lifting his fork. When the conversation turned toward trimming budgets and drunken jests of doubling soldiers up on horses, I chimed in that if the cabinet pooled their jewels and baubles, maybe the treasury would have a surplus. Of course I looked at the Chancellor and raised my glass to him to make sure my point wasn’t lost on their ale-soaked minds. It was a truth my father hadn’t wanted to hear, at least not from me.

  I heard a rustle and glanced up to see a very tired Berdi shuffle into the kitchen. I redoubled my efforts on the pot. She walked over and stood silently by my side. I waited for her to berate me again, but instead she lifted my chin so I had to look at her and said softly that I had had every right to chastise the soldier harshly and she was glad that I did.

  “But harsh words coming from a young woman like you, as opposed to an old crone like me, are more likely to ignite egos rather than tame them. You need to be careful. I was as worried for you as I was for me. That doesn’t mean the words didn’t need to be said, and you said them well. I’m sorry.”

  My throat tightened. In all the times I had spoken my mind with my parents, I had never been told I said anything well, much less heard any shred of apology. I blinked, wishing I had an onion now to explain my stinging eyes. Berdi drew me into her arms and held me, giving me a chance to compose myself.

  “It’s been a long day,” she whispered. “Go. Rest. I’ll finish up here.”

  I nodded, still not trusting myself to speak.

  I closed the kitchen door behind me and made my way up the steps carved into the hillside behind the tavern. The night was still, and the moon peeked in and out through ribbons of foggy mist rolling up from the bay. In spite of the chill, I was warmed by Berdi’s words.

  When I reached the last step, I pulled my cap from my head, letting my hair tumble to my shoulders, feeling full and satisfied as I again turned over what she had said. I headed down the trail, with the faint golden glow of the cottage window serving as my beacon. Pauline was probably already deep in slumber, basking in dreams of Mikael and his arms holding her so tightly she never had to worry about him leaving her again.

  I sighed as I made my way down the dark trail. My dreams were of the dull and boring variety if I remembered them at all and certainly were never of arms holding me. Those kind of dreams I had to conjure to life when I was awake. A salty breeze stirred the leaves in front of me, and I rubbed my arms to warm them.

  “Lia.”

  I jumped, drawing in a sharp breath.

  “Shh. It’s only me.” Kaden stepped out from the shadow of a large oak. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

  I froze. “What are you doing here?”

  “I’ve been waiting for you.”

  He walked closer. He may have been harmless enough in the tavern, but what business did he have out here in the dark with me? My slim dagger was still tucked beneath my jerkin. I hugged my arms to my sides, feeling it beneath the fabric, and took a step backward.

  He noted my move and stopped. “I just wanted to make sure you made it home safely,” he said. “I know soldiers like the one you humiliated in the tavern. Their memories are long, and their egos large.” He smiled hesitantly. “And I suppose I wanted to tell you I admired the show. I didn’t really convey my appreciation earlier.” He paused, and when I still didn’t respond, he added, “May I walk you the rest of the way?”

  He offered his arm, but I didn’t take it. “You’ve been waiting all this time? I thought you’d be down the road by now.”

  “I’m staying here. There weren’t any rooms available, but the innkeeper graciously offered the barn loft. A soft mattress is a welcome change from a dusty bedroll.” He shrugged and added, “Even if I have to listen to a complaining donkey or two.”

  So he was a guest of the inn,
and a considerate one at that. Also a paying customer who should rightfully be staying in our cozy but leaky cottage. My arms relaxed at my sides. “And your friend?”

  “My friend?” He tilted his head to the side, boyish, instantly taking years off his studied body language. He raked a stray blond lock back with his fingers. “Oh, him. He’s staying too.”

  He wasn’t a pelt trader, of that much I was certain. Parting animals from their skins wasn’t his specialty. His movements were quiet and deliberate as might befit a hunter, but his eyes … his eyes. They were warm and smoky, and turbulence stirred just below their deceptively calm surface. They were used to a different kind of life, though I couldn’t imagine what it might be.

  “What brings you to Terravin?” I asked.

  Before I could react, his hand reached out and grabbed mine. “Let me walk you to your cottage,” he said. “And I’ll tell you about—”

  “Kaden?”

  I pulled my hand away, and we turned to the voice that called out from the darkness. The black silhouette of Rafe, just a short distance down the path, was unmistakable. He had come upon us with no warning, his movement as stealthy as a cat. His features came into view as he ambled closer.

  “What is it?” Kaden asked, his tone thick with bother.

  “That skittish broodmare of yours is kicking in her stall. Before she does real damage, you—”

  “Stallion,” Kaden corrected. “He was fine when I left him.”

  Rafe shrugged. “He isn’t fine now. Jittery with the new accommodations, I suppose.”

  Oh, he was full of himself.

  Kaden shook his head and set off in a huff, for which I was grateful. Berdi would not be happy with a demolished stall, not to mention I was worried how my docile Otto, Nove, and Dieci might fare with such a destructive neighbor. I had grown quite fond of them. They were outside in an adjacent covered stall, but only a thin wooden wall separated them from the animals housed in the barn.

  In seconds, Kaden was gone, and Rafe and I were left awkwardly alone, a slight breeze stirring the fallen leaves between us. I pushed the hair from my face and noted his changed appearance. His hair was neatly combed and tied back, and his freshly scrubbed face gleamed in the dim moonlight. His cheekbones were sharp and tanned, and his shirt newly changed. He remained perfectly content to silently stare at me. It seemed to be a habit of his.

  “You couldn’t calm his horse down yourself?” I finally said.

  A smirk lifted the corner of his mouth, but he only answered with a question of his own.

  “What did Kaden want?”

  “Only to be sure I made it safely back to my cottage. He was concerned about the soldier from the tavern.”

  “He’s right. The woods can be dangerous—especially when you’re alone.”

  Was he deliberately trying to intimidate me? “I’m hardly alone. And we’re not exactly deep in the woods. There are plenty of people within earshot.”

  “Are there?” He looked around as if he was trying to see the people I spoke of and then his eyes settled on me once again. A knot twisted beneath my ribs.

  He took a step closer. “Of course you do have that little knife tucked beneath your vest.”

  My dagger? How does he know? It was sheathed snugly at my side. Had I revealed it by absently touching it? I noted that he was a head taller than me. I lifted my chin.

  “Not so little,” I said. “A six-inch blade. Long enough to kill someone if used skillfully.”

  “And you’re skilled?”

  Only with a nonmoving target like a chamber door. “Very,” I answered.

  He didn’t respond, as though my blade and professed skills didn’t impress him.

  “Well, good night, then.” I turned to leave.

  “Lia, wait.”

  I stopped, my back still toward him. Good sense told me to keep moving. Go, Lia. Move on. I heard a lifetime of warnings. My mother. Father. Brothers. Even the Scholar. Everyone who hedged me before and behind for good or bad. Keep moving.

  But I didn’t. Maybe it was his voice. Maybe it was hearing him say my name. Or maybe I was still feeling full from knowing that sometimes I was right, that sometimes my impulsive gut might lead me into danger, but that didn’t make it any less the right direction to go. Maybe it was feeling the impossible was about to happen. Dread and anticipation tangled together.

  I turned and met his gaze, feeling the danger of it, the heat, but not willing to look away. I waited for him to speak. He took another step closer, the space between us closing to a mere few feet. He lifted his hand toward me, and I took a shaky step back but saw he was only holding my cap. “You dropped this.”

  He held it out, steady, waiting for me to take it, bits of crushed leaves still clinging to its gauzy lace.

  “Thank you,” I whispered, and reached out to take it from him, my fingertips brushing his, but he held it tight. His skin seared against the cool of mine. I looked into his eyes, questioning his grip, and for the first time I saw a chink in his armor, his usual steely expression softened by a crease between his brows, a moment of indecision washing over his face, and then an ever so slight rise in his chest—a deeper breath, as if I’d caught him off guard.

  “I have it,” I said. “You can let go.”

  He released his grip, bid me a hasty good night, then abruptly turned and disappeared back down the path.

  He was unsettled. I had knocked him off kilter. More than seeing this, I had felt it, his disquiet palpable on my skin, tickling at my neck. How? What had I done? I didn’t know, but I stared into the black hollows of the path where he disappeared until the wind rattled the branches above me, reminding me it was late, I was alone, and the woods were very dark.

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  THE ASSASSIN

  There can be no second chances.

  And yet I had let one slip past me.

  I threw my saddlebag against the wall. My loftmate had taken the mattress in the opposite corner. At least the space was ample. He was raising my hackles already, a country clod who, with two drinks, had foolishly set his sights on a princess. I knew the type. A mistake to befriend him, but regardless, there were no more rooms in the inn, so I likely would have ended up sharing the loft with him anyway.

  The accommodations were sparse. Only a roof over our heads, and thin bare mattresses we had to hoist up from a storage room ourselves, but at least the barn didn’t stink—yet. I had to concede too that the food at the inn was a far better option than a bony squirrel roasted on a stick over an open fire, and I was tired of filling my bota from gritty streams.

  I hope dark ciders are to your liking.

  They were. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t her. I rubbed my ribs beneath my shirt, remembering the numerous beatings, years past now, but each lash still fresh in my mind. The royals I had known were made of cowardice and greed, and she showed no measure of either. She stood her ground with that soldier, defending her friend like a whole army stood behind her. She was frightened. I saw the mugs tremble in her hand, but her fear didn’t hold her back.

  Still, a royal was a royal, and her haughty arrogance proved her roots. I’d remember that when her time came, but there was no reason I couldn’t enjoy the comforts of the inn and other pleasures as well for a few more days before I finished my business. There was plenty of time for that. Griz and the others wouldn’t be joining up with me for another month. I didn’t have to spend it alone in a wasteland eating rodents when I could stay here. I’d get the job done when the time was right. The Komizar had always been able to count on me, and this time would be no different.

  I pulled off my boots and blew out the lantern, sliding my knife just below the mattress edge at hand’s reach. How many times had I slashed it across anonymous throats? But this time I knew the name of my victim, at least the assumed one she was using. Lia. A very unroyal name. I wondered why she chose it.

  Lia. Like a whisper on the wind.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

>   THE PRINCE

  I’d told Sven I probably wouldn’t even speak to her, and yet from the moment I saw her prance around like nothing in the outside world mattered, that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to deliver a diatribe of epic proportion, a lecture that would color even my father’s seasoned ears. I wanted to betray her identity to a roomful of people, and yet I sat there silently and let her deliver menu choices to me instead. Princess Arabella, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, working in a tavern.

  And she seemed to be enjoying it. Immensely.

  Maybe that’s what bothered me most of all. While I was on the road, wondering if she was the quarry of bandits or bears, she was playing barmaid. She was trouble, that was clear, and the day she fled our wedding, I had dodged a poisonous arrow. She did me a favor. I could almost laugh at Father’s suggestion of taking a mistress after the wedding. This girl could make the whole royal court and half the king’s army regret such a decision.

  I rolled over, punching the lumpy mattress, hoping my restlessness kept my unwelcome companion awake. He had stomped around for the better part of an hour before extinguishing the lantern. I saw him looking at her in the tavern, his eyes practically undressing her from the minute we walked in.

  I was caught by surprise when I first saw her too. Her face didn’t match the pinched, sour one I had envisioned after so many miles on the road. My epic lecture shriveled to silence as I watched her. I was almost hoping it wasn’t her but then when I heard her speak, I knew. I knew by her boldness and temper. I knew by the way she commanded a towering soldier to silence with a few hotly placed, if imprudent, words. After we sat, I noticed my newfound friend still watching her, his eyes rolling over her like a panther on a doe, probably supposing her to be his dessert. I almost kicked his chair out from beneath him.

  With luck, he’d be on his way tomorrow and would forget about making a conquest of a local barmaid. After we left the tavern and he visited the privy, I took a closer look at his tack, all nondescript, no markings to denote an artisan or region. Nothing. Not on his saddlebag, scabbard, reins, or blanket—not even the humblest embellishment like a tooled noseband for his horse. By chance or design?

 

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