The kiss of deception, p.8
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.8

           Mary E. Pearson
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  I rolled over again, unable to get comfortable. So I’ve seen her. Now what? I’d told Sven I wouldn’t speak to her, and I did. I wanted to shame her publicly, and I didn’t. I wanted to tell her privately, but I knew I couldn’t. Nothing was turning out quite as I planned.


  “Why didn’t you wake me when you came in last night?”

  I stood behind Pauline as she faced the mirror, and I looked at her clouded image. The glass was speckled with age, probably thrown into the cottage as more damaged overflow, but I was happy to see that some pink had returned to her cheeks. She brushed her long honey locks with brisk strokes as I pulled my riding clothes from the wardrobe.

  “It was late, and you were sleeping soundly. No need to wake you.”

  Her brisk strokes slowed to hesitant ones. “I’m sorry that you and Berdi argued. She really is trying to—”

  “Berdi and I are fine, Pauline. Don’t worry. We talked after you left. She understands my—”

  “You have to realize, Lia, Terravin isn’t like Civica. Your father and his cabinet aren’t watching over every soldier in the kingdom. Berdi does the best she can.”

  I turned to lash out at her, my anger flaring at being chastised again, but then the kernel of truth caught in my throat. My father rarely left the comforts of Civica. Neither did his cabinet. He ruled from a distance if he ruled at all, arranging things like marriages to solve his problems. When was the last time he had actually toured his realm and spoken with those not cradled in the security of Civica? The Viceregent and his small entourage were the only ones who spent any time away from Civica and then it was only on routine diplomatic visits to the Lesser Kingdoms.

  I snapped my trousers out before me, trying to shake out the wrinkles, and we both looked at the sagging torn knee, and frayed threads where a dozen more holes were beginning to erupt.

  “You’re right, Pauline. Terravin is nothing like Civica.”

  We exchanged smiles, knowing rags like these had never graced even the outer halls of the royal court, and we let the unsaid pass. After three decades on the throne, my father didn’t know his own kingdom anymore. Some things were easier seen from a distance than when they were right under your nose.

  We both dressed, tucking our shirts into our trousers and pulling on our boots. I belted my knife to my side and put on my soft leather jerkin to cover it. A six-inch blade. I smiled. Did he buy it? It was actually just shy of four—but very nicely weighted—and as Aunt Bernette noted, a little exaggeration was always expected when describing weapons, victories, and body parts. I wore the small jeweled dagger more to feel close to my brothers than for protection, though it might not hurt for Rafe to think otherwise. Walther had always sharpened the blade for me, taking pride in how I attacked my chamber door with it. Honing the edge was left to me now. I touched the sheath, making sure it was snug against my hip, and wondered if my brothers missed me as much as I missed them.

  With the inn still full, there were no rooms to clean out this morning, and Berdi was sending us on a hunting expedition for blackberries. It was a welcome change of routine, and I was eager to give Otto, Nove, and Dieci a day out too, though I knew they’d be just as content to eat hay in their pen and provide occasional commentary on anyone passing by—which they perceptively seemed to do with regularity whenever Enzo was close about.

  We were to pick up Gwyneth on our way, and she’d show us the route to Devil’s Canyon, where the blackberry brambles were thick. Berdi claimed the berries there were the sweetest. With the upcoming festival less than two weeks away, she was preparing to make blackberry scones, preserves, and flummery. Also, as Gwyneth revealed on the sly, Berdi needed fresh blackberries for the new cellaring of blackberry wine she would put up to replace the bottles that would be drunk at this year’s festival.

  I had wondered what was in the dark cases stacked in the corner of the cellar. Apparently all the merchants contributed something to the festival, and blackberry treats were Berdi’s specialties year after year. A tradition. It was one tradition I looked forward to.

  I braided Pauline’s hair, trying to circle it about her head, but I wasn’t skilled at weaving and finally had to settle for a simple but neat braid down the middle of her back. We traded places, and she did the same for me, but she created a more elaborate design with much less effort, beginning braids at each temple and having them meet at the crown of my head, artfully leaving loose tendrils in the wake of the cable to soften its effect. She hummed to herself as she worked, and I decided she must still be musing over dreams of Mikael from the night before, but then a little murmur escaped her lips as if she had discovered something in my hair that shouldn’t be there—like a big fat tick.

  “What?” I asked, alarmed.

  “Just remembering those two fellows from last night. They looked positively stricken when Berdi banished you to the kitchen. You have some interesting admirers.”

  “Kaden and Rafe?”

  “Ho! You know their names?” She balked and tugged on my hair, making me wince.

  “Simple courtesy. When I waited on them, I asked.”

  She leaned to the side to make sure I could see her in the mirror and rolled her eyes with great flourish. “I don’t see you asking old bald butchers what their names are. What about that third fellow who came in later? Did you get his name too?”

  “Third fellow?”

  “You didn’t see him? He walked in right after the other two. A thin, scruffy fellow. He shot plenty of sideways looks your way.”

  I tried to remember him, but I had been so occupied with the miscreant soldier and then serving Kaden and Rafe, that I didn’t even recall the tavern door opening again. “No, I didn’t notice him.”

  She shrugged. “He didn’t stay long. Didn’t even finish his cider. But Kaden and Reef certainly lingered. They didn’t look anything like scampering rabbits to me.”

  I knew she was referring to Charles and the many other boys who avoided me. “His name was Rafe,” I corrected.

  “Ohh … Rafe. Did you favor one over the other?”

  My spine stiffened. Favor? It was my turn to roll my eyes. “They were both rude and presumptuous.”

  “Is that Her Royal Highness speaking or someone who’s afraid of fleeing rabbits?” She pulled on another thin strand of hair.

  “I swear, Pauline, I’m going to behead you if you pull my hair one more time! What’s gotten into you?”

  She was resolute, not the least bothered by my threat. “I’m just returning your favor of last night. I should have stood up to that soldier myself long before you had to step in.”

  I sighed. “We all have our different skills. You’re patient to a fault, which sometimes doesn’t work to your advantage. I, on the other hand, have the patience of a wet cat. Only on rare occasions does that come in handy.” I gave a resigned shrug, making Pauline grin. I quickly added a scowl. “And just how is plucking me bald doing me a favor?”

  “I’m saving you from yourself. I watched you with them last night.” Her hands dropped to my shoulders. “I want you to stop being afraid,” she said gently. “The good ones don’t run away, Lia.”

  I swallowed. I wanted to look away, but her eyes were fixed on me. Pauline knew me too well. I had always hidden my fears from others with sharp talk and bold gestures. How many times had she seen me trying to tame my breathing in a dark corridor of the citadelle after a nasty encounter with the Scholar when he told me I was deficient in my studies, social abilities, or any number of things where I fell short of what was expected. Or the many times I stood frozen at my chamber window blankly staring at nothing at all for as long as an hour, blinking back tears after another curt dismissal from my father. Or the times I had had to retreat to my dressing chamber and lock the door. I knew Pauline had heard me cry. The last few years, I hadn’t measured up in any way, and the more they pushed, molded, and silenced me, the more I wanted to be heard.

  Pauline’s hands slid from my sho
ulders. “I suppose they were both pleasant enough to look at,” I offered. I heard the pretense in my own voice. The truth was I found them both to be attractive in their own ways. I wasn’t a corpse. But even though they had made my blood rush when they walked into the tavern, they’d filled me with apprehension too.

  Pauline still waited for something else, expressionless. It didn’t seem to be enough of an admission for her, so I gave her another that I was sure I’d regret. “And maybe I did favor one of them.”

  Though I wasn’t entirely sure. Finding something intriguing about one of them didn’t necessarily mean I favored him. Still, he had haunted my dreams last night in a strange way. Partial glimpses of his face dissolved and reappeared over and over again like a specter, appearing in shadows of deep forest, walls of crumbling ruins, and his eyes crackling in a fan of flames.

  He followed wherever I went, searching me as if I had stolen a secret that belonged to him. They were disturbing dreams, not at all the kind I imagined Pauline had of Mikael. It could have been that my restless dreams were simply due to Berdi’s cooking, but this morning when I woke, my first thoughts were of him.

  Pauline smiled and tied off my braid with a string of raffia. “The blackberries await Your Highness.”

  * * *

  As we saddled the braying trio, Kaden stepped out of the tavern. Berdi served simple fare in the morning—hard cheeses, boiled eggs, kippers, hot parritch, flat breads, and plenty of hot chicory to drink—all laid out on the sideboard. It was a simple serve-yourself meal, or a guest could pack it in a knapsack to go. No one went hungry at Berdi’s—not even mumpers or princesses who showed up on her back step.

  I pulled Otto’s cinch and went on to check Nove’s as I stole glances at Kaden from under my lashes. Pauline cleared her throat like something was suddenly caught in it. I shot her a stern look. Her eyes rolled toward Kaden—who was now walking straight toward us. My mouth was suddenly dry, and I swallowed, trying to coax forth a little moisture. He wore a white shirt, and his boots crunched in the dirt as he approached.

  “Morning, ladies. You’re off early.”

  “As are you,” I answered.

  We exchanged niceties, and he explained he was off to take care of some matters that might keep him several more days at the inn, though he didn’t say what the matters were.

  “Are you a pelt trader as Gwyneth suggested?” I asked.

  He smiled. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. Small animal skins. Usually I trade out of Piadro, but I’m hoping to find better prices up north. I commend your friend on her skilled observances.”

  So I was wrong. He did trade in pelts. Impressions could be deceiving. “Yes,” I agreed. “Gwyneth is quite perceptive.”

  He untied his horse from the rail. “I’m hoping that when I return this afternoon, a real room might be available.”

  “It’s not likely until after the festival,” Pauline said. “But there might be a room at another inn in town.”

  He paused as if he contemplated looking elsewhere, his eyes resting on me for several beats longer than was comfortable. In the brightness of day, his blond hair shone, and his deep brown eyes revealed more color, a striking spectrum of bronzed flecks, rich and warm like freshly tilled earth, but disquiet still lurked beneath the apparent calm. A short growth of stubble on his chin caught the morning sun, and I didn’t even realize I was studying his well-chiseled lips until an amused grin spread across them. I quickly returned my attention to Nove, feeling my cheeks blaze.

  “I’ll stay here,” he answered.

  “And your friend? Will he be staying as well?” I asked.

  “I don’t know what his plans are, but I suspect his nose is too finicky for him to last long in a loft.” He bid his good-byes, and I watched him ride away on a horse as black as night, a strong wildish beast, even its breaths fearsome, as though a dragon lurked in its lineage. It was a beast that could splinter a stall and would never be mistaken for a broodmare. I smiled at the thought, wondering at the way Rafe had goaded him. They were an odd pair of friends.

  When he was well out of sight, Pauline said, “So it’s Rafe.”

  I swung up on Otto and didn’t answer. Today Pauline seemed to have woken up bent on bolstering relationships, first me and Berdi, and now me and … whoever. Was it because she so desperately wanted to fortify her own relationship with Mikael? I wasn’t prone to calling on the gods outside of the required rituals, but I touched two fingers to my lips and sent up a prayer that Mikael would return soon.

  * * *

  Terravin was small, which was part of its charm. From Berdi’s inn tucked back in the hills on the south end to the first clusters of shops on the northern end, it was a fifteen-minute journey at most—faster if you weren’t riding three asses that were in no hurry to get anywhere. I wondered at all the brightly colored homes and shops, and Pauline told me that it was a tradition that had started centuries ago. The women of the small fishing village painted their homes a bright color so their husbands who went to sea could see their own house from afar and remember that a wife waited for them to return. It was believed to be a way to protect their true love from being lost at sea.

  Could anyone really travel so far that they might not find their way home again? I had never been farther out in the ocean than my knees, a freezing dip in the waters of the Safran Sea on a rare family excursion, where I chased my brothers on the beach and picked up seashells with … my father. The old memory gusted through me like a startling cold wind. So many other memories had piled on top of it that it was nearly extinguished. I was certain my father had no recollection of it at all. He had been a different man back then. I was different too.

  Pauline and I made our way north along the narrow upper trail that paralleled the main road below. Ragged stripes of light squeezing through the trees played across our path. Besides the main road, there were dozens of narrow lanes like this one that wound through Terravin and the surrounding hillsides, each leading to unique discoveries. We cut down one of them to the center of town, and the Sacrista came into view, a large imposing structure for such a small hamlet. I surmised that the people of Terravin must be ardent in their devotion to the gods.

  A graveyard bordered one side, riddled with markers so old they were only thin flat slabs of stone. Any adornments, words, or grand tributes had been washed away long ago, leaving their honored occupants lost to history, and yet candles of remembrance still glowed in red glass lanterns in front of a scattered few.

  I watched Pauline’s gaze flutter across stone and candle. Even Otto slowed as we passed, his ears twitching as though he were being hailed by the residents within. A breeze skipped across the headstones, pulling at my loose tendrils, snaking them around my neck.

  Gone … gone …

  My flesh crawled. Fright closed my throat with sudden ferocity. Mikael. Something is wrong. Something is hopelessly and irretrievably wrong.

  Fear seized me unexpectedly and fully. I forced myself to remember the facts: Mikael was only on patrol. Walther and Regan had both been on dozens of patrols, and sometimes they were late returning home due to weather, supplies, or any number of inconsequential things. Patrols were not dangerous. Sometimes there were skirmishes, but rarely did they even encounter a trespasser. The only injury either one of them had ever returned with was a crushed toe when a horse stepped on Regan’s bare foot.

  Patrols were only a precaution, a way of asserting borders not to be crossed and a way to ensure no permanent settlements were established in the Cam Lanteux, a safety zone between kingdoms. They chased bands of barbarians back behind their own borders. Walther called it mere chest beating. He said the worse part of it was enduring the body odors of unwashed men. In truth, I wasn’t sure that the barbarians were a threat at all. Yes, savage by all the reports I had heard at court and from soldiers, but they’d been kept back behind borders for hundreds of years. How fierce could they really be?

  Pauline’s true love was fine, I told myself, bu
t the oppressive feeling lingered. I had never met Mikael. He wasn’t from Civica, had only been assigned there as part of a rotation of troops, and Pauline had followed court rules to the letter and been discreet—so discreet she never even mentioned him until just before we left. Now I feared that I might never meet this young man who loved her so and made her face glow when she spoke of him.

  “Would you like to stop?” I blurted out much too loudly, startling her. I pulled back on Otto’s reins.

  She stopped, anxious lines creasing her forehead. “If you don’t mind. It will only take a moment.”

  I nodded and she slid from Nove, pulling a coin from her saddlebag. She hurried into the Sacrista. A candle. A prayer. A hope. A flickering light burning for Mikael. A beacon to guide him safely to Terravin.

  It would sustain her until the next time a warning breeze skipped over the bones of the long dead. Pauline was true to her word, as in all things, and when she returned a short time later, the rigid edge of worry that had hardened her face a few minutes earlier had softened. Pauline had given worry over to the gods. My own heart lightened.

  We finished our trek to the main road and followed the directions Berdi gave us to Gwyneth’s small rented room above the apothecary. It was a tiny shop sandwiched between much larger stores on either side. A narrow staircase hugged one wall and led to a room on the second floor that I assumed was Gwyneth’s. It was set back from the rest of the structure and not much larger than an arm span across, surely with no running water or the basic comfort of a chamber closet. I was intensely curious about Gwyneth’s life outside the tavern. She never spoke of it even when prodded, always giving vague responses and moving on to something else, which only served to spark my imagination. I had expected her to live in someplace much more exotic or mysterious than a little room over a shop on a busy main road.

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