The kiss of deception, p.9
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       The Kiss of Deception, p.9

           Mary E. Pearson
slower 1  faster

  We slid from our donkeys, and I handed Otto’s reins to Pauline, telling her I’d run up the stairs to get Gwyneth, but suddenly she emerged from the shoemaker’s across the road with a child of no more than six or seven, a pretty little girl with dark strawberry curls falling past her shoulders and sprinkles of sun dust trailing across her nose and cheeks. She held a small wrapped package she clearly treasured, hugging it to her chest. “Thank you, Miss Gwyneth! I can’t wait to show Mama!”

  She ran off and disappeared down another lane. “Good-bye, Simone!” Gwyneth called after her and continued to look in the direction the little girl had run long after she was gone. A faint smile lit her eyes, a gentleness that permeated her whole bearing. It was a tender side I had never seen in the usually jaded Gwyneth.

  “She’s very pretty,” I called to alert her to our presence.

  She whipped her gaze in our direction, and her back stiffened. “You’re early,” she said curtly.

  She joined us on our side of the street, inspecting the bucktoothed Dieci suspiciously, wondering aloud if the homely beast had ever been ridden. In truth, we didn’t know, though he took to the saddle well enough. As she checked his cinch, a large lunch wagon clattered by on its way to the docks, and great wafts of greasy fried eel filled the air around us. While I didn’t favor this regional delicacy, its aroma was not unpleasant, but Pauline’s hand flew to her mouth. Her face paled, and she doubled over, her morning meal splattering to the street. I tried to go to her aid, but she brushed me away and clutched her stomach again as another wave overtook her and there was more spillage. I was certain her stomach had to be empty now. She straightened, taking a shaky breath, but her hands were still protectively pressed to her stomach. I stared at her hands, and in an instant, the rest of the world disappeared.

  Oh, blessed gods.

  Pauline?

  It hit me as swiftly as a punch to my gut. No wonder she’d been so sallow and tired. No wonder she was so frightened.

  “Pauline,” I whispered.

  She shook her head, cutting me off. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine. The parritch simply didn’t settle properly.” She sent me a quick pleading look with watery eyes.

  We could talk about this later. With Gwyneth looking on, I hurriedly tried to cover, explaining that Pauline had always had a delicate constitution.

  “Weak stomach or not, she’s in no shape to travel into a hot canyon for berry hunting,” Gwyneth said firmly, and I was grateful that Pauline agreed. Still looking pale, she insisted she could return home on her own, and I reluctantly let her go.

  “Skip the parritch from now on,” Gwyneth called after her as she rode away.

  But Pauline and I both knew it wasn’t her morning meal that had made her sick.

  From the seed of the thief

  The Dragon will rise,

  The gluttonous one,

  Feeding on the blood of babes,

  Drinking the tears of mothers.

  —Song of Venda

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  Devil’s Canyon was aptly named. The temperate breezes of Terravin didn’t venture down here. It was dry and dusty but strangely beautiful in its own way. Large gnarled oaks mingled with tall palms and barrel cactus. Jewelweed taller than a man hugged the thin rocky streams that sprang from creviced walls. It looked like a demon’s stash, mismatched flora stolen from the corners of the earth to create his own version of paradise. And of course there were the blackberries, his seductive fruit, but we hadn’t come upon them yet.

  Gwyneth blew a puff of air from her mouth, trying to cool her brow, and then unbuttoned her shirt, pulling it off and tying it around her waist. Her chemise did little to hide her generous breasts or their perkiness beneath the thin fabric. My chemise was much more modest than hers, but in spite of the sweat trickling down my back, I was reluctant to shed my shirt. I knew Terravin was more relaxed about exposed body parts, but in Civica, nearly bared breasts would have been scandalous. My parents would have—

  I smiled and threw off my jerkin and then pulled my shirt over my head. I immediately felt the relief of the air on my damp skin.

  “There you go, Princess. Isn’t that better?” Gwyneth said.

  I tugged abruptly on Otto’s reins, and he voiced a loud complaint. “Princess?”

  She halted Dieci much more leisurely and grinned. “You thought I didn’t know? The all-knowing Gwyneth perceives everything.”

  My heart raced. I wasn’t amused. I wasn’t even entirely sure she wasn’t just fishing. “I think you have me confused with someone else.”

  She feigned offense, the corners of her mouth pulling back in a smirk. “You doubt me? You’ve seen how good I am at assessing the tavern patrons.” She clicked the reins and moved forward. I followed her, keeping pace as she continued to talk, seeming to enjoy this game even more than the one she played at the tavern. “Or,” she said with grand flourish, “it could be I have a crystal ball. Or … perhaps I snooped around in your cottage?”

  The jewels in my bag. Or worse, the stolen—

  I drew in a startled breath.

  She turned to look at me and frowned. “Or it could be that Berdi told me,” she spelled out plainly.

  “What?” I pulled on Otto’s reins again, and he voiced another high-pitched whine.

  “Stop doing that! It’s not the wretched beast’s fault.”

  “Berdi told you?”

  With slow, deliberate grace, she dismounted from her donkey, while I clumsily vaulted from mine, nearly tumbling onto my face. “After all her talk about not telling anyone?” I shrieked. “All her admonitions to be careful and hiding us away for days on end?”

  “It was only for a few days. And telling me was different. She—”

  “How is announcing it to a tavern maid who chatters with strangers from hither and yon different? There was no reason you needed to know!”

  I turned to lead Otto forward, but she grabbed my wrist and jerked me around roughly. “Berdi knows I live in town and I’d be the first to know if a magistrate came nosing around or leaving notices for your arrest if it should come to that.” She released my hand.

  I rubbed my wrist where she had twisted it. “So you know what I did?”

  Her lips puckered with disdain, and she nodded. “I can’t say I understand why. It’s far preferable to be shackled to a pompous prince than to a penniless philanderer, but—”

  “I’d prefer not to be shackled to anyone.”

  “Ah. Love. Yes, that. It’s a nice little trick if you can find it. But don’t fret; I’m still on your side.”

  “Well,” I huffed. “That’s a relief, isn’t it?”

  Her shoulders pulled back, and she cocked her head to the side. “Don’t underestimate my usefulness, Lia, and I won’t underestimate yours.”

  I already wished I could snatch my remark back. I sighed. “I’m sorry, Gwyneth. I don’t mean to snap at you. It’s just that I’ve tried so hard to be careful. I don’t want anyone to be hurt by my presence.”

  “How long do you plan to stay?”

  Had she supposed I was only passing through? “Forever, of course. I’ve no place else to go.”

  “Terravin isn’t paradise, Lia. The problems of Morrighan won’t disappear just because you hide here. What about your responsibilities?”

  “I have none beyond Terravin. My only responsibilities are to Berdi, Pauline, and the inn.”

  She nodded. “I see.”

  But it was clear that she didn’t see. From her perspective, all she saw was privilege and power, but I knew the truth. I was barely useful in a kitchen. As a First Daughter, I wasn’t useful at all. And as a political pawn, I refused to be useful.

  “Well,” she sighed, “I suppose all the mistakes I’ve made have been entirely my own doing. You’re entitled to make your own too.”

  “What kind of mistakes have you made, Gwyneth?”

  She shot me a withering look. “Regrettable ones.” Her tone dared me to push further, but her e
yes faltered for a fleeting moment. She pointed to two narrow arms of the canyon where she said the best berry bushes thrived. “We can leave the donkeys here. You take one trail, and I’ll take the other. It shouldn’t take us long to fill our baskets.” Our discussion was apparently over. She untied her baskets from Dieci’s pack and left without divulging her regrettable mistakes, but the brief wistful cast of her eyes stayed with me, and I wondered what she had done.

  I followed the narrow trail she pointed to and found it soon opened up into a wider oasis, the devil’s own garden, complete with a shallow pool of water fed by a trickling brook. The shaded northern slope of the canyon hung heavy with berry bushes, and their tufted purple fruit was the largest I had ever seen. The devil tended his garden well.

  I plucked one of his forbidden berries and popped it in my mouth. A rush of flavor and memory engulfed me. I closed my eyes and saw Walther’s face, Bryn’s, Regan’s, berry juice dripping from their chins. I saw the four of us running through woods, scrambling over moss-covered ruins of the Ancients without care, never thinking our own world would one day change too.

  Stair steps, Aunt Bernette called us, all almost exactly two years apart, as if my mother and father bred on the Timekeeper’s strict schedule, and of course, once a First Daughter was produced, the breeding stopped altogether. My father’s glance at my mother on my last day in Civica flashed through me, the last memory of them I’d probably ever have, and then his comment about her beauty on their wedding day. Was it the rigors of duty that made him shove her aside and forget about love? Had he ever loved her?

  A nice little trick if you can find it.

  But Pauline did.

  I plucked a handful of berries and nestled down against a palm near the brook. The short day had already brought so much turmoil, and the day before hadn’t brought any less. I was weary of it and soaked in the tranquillity of the devil’s garden, listening to the gurgle of his brook and shamelessly savoring his fruit one plump morsel at a time.

  I had just closed my eyes when I heard another sound. My eyes shot open. The distant whinny of Otto? Or was it only the whistle of wind down the canyon? But there was no wind.

  I turned my head and heard the unmistakable thump of hooves—heavy and methodical. My hand went to my side, but my knife was gone. I’d left it hanging on the horn of my saddle when I stripped off my shirt. I only had time to scramble to my feet when an enormous horse appeared—with Rafe sitting atop it.

  The devil had arrived. And some strange part of me was glad.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  He stopped some distance away, as if waiting for a signal from me to proceed. My stomach twisted. His face was different today. Still striking, but yesterday he was decidedly angry from the moment he saw me and I felt he wanted to hate me.

  Today he wanted something else.

  In the glare of the overhead sun, shadows slashed across his cheekbones, and his eyes were a deeper cutting blue against the muted landscape. Framed in dark lashes, they were the kind of eyes that could stop anyone and make them reconsider their steps. He made me reconsider mine. I swallowed. He casually held up two baskets in one hand as if they were an explanation for his presence. “Pauline sent me. She said you forgot these.”

  I resisted rolling my eyes. Of course she did. The ever-resourceful Pauline. Even in her weakened state, she was still a steadfast member of the queen’s court, trying to weave possibilities for her charge from afar, and of course, she was the sort that even Rafe couldn’t refuse.

  “Thank you,” I answered. “She was taken ill and had to return to the inn, but I forgot to get her baskets before she left.”

  He nodded as if it all made perfect sense, and then his gaze passed over my shoulders and bare arms. My chemise was apparently not as modest as I had thought it to be, but there was little I could do to remedy that now. Along with my knife, my shirt was still hanging on Otto’s saddle. I walked closer to retrieve the baskets, trying to ignore the flash of heat spreading across my chest.

  His horse was monstrous and made my Ravian seem like a child’s pony. It was clearly built not for speed but for strength, and maybe intimidation. Rafe sat so high on the saddle he had to lean down to hand me the baskets.

  “I’m sorry if I intruded,” he said as I took the baskets from him.

  His apology caught me off guard. His voice was polite and genuine, holding none of the rancor of yesterday.

  “A kindness isn’t an intrusion,” I replied. I looked up at him, and before I could cut off my own words, I heard myself inviting him to stay and water his horse. “If you have the time, that is.” What had I done? Something about him greatly troubled me, but something enthralled me too, so much so that I was being far too reckless with my invitations.

  His brows lifted as he considered my offer, and for a moment, I prayed he would say no. “I think I have the time,” he said. He swung down from his horse and led it to the pool, but it only sniffed at the water. It was a black and white piebald, and though formidable in stature, quite possibly the most beautiful horse I had ever seen. Its coat gleamed, and the feathers on its fore and hind legs were shimmering white clouds that danced when it walked. Rafe dropped the lead and turned back to me.

  “You’re gathering berries?”

  “Berdi needs them for the festival.”

  He walked closer, stopping just an arm’s length away, and surveyed the canyon. “Way out here? There are none closer to the inn?”

  I held my ground. “Not like the berries here. These are twice the size.”

  He stared at me as if I hadn’t spoken. I knew that something else was going on here. Our gazes were locked as if our wills were battling on some mysterious plane, and I knew if I turned away, I would lose. Finally he looked down for a moment, almost contritely, chewing on his lower lip, and I breathed.

  His expression softened. “Do you need help?” he asked.

  Help? I fumbled with the baskets, dropping one. “You’re in distinctly better spirits today than you were yesterday,” I said as I stooped to pick it up.

  “I wasn’t in poor spirits.”

  I straightened. “Yes you were. You were an ill-mannered boor.”

  A grin slowly lifted the corners of his mouth, that same maddening, arrogant, secretive grin of last night. “You surprise me, Lia.”

  “In what way?” I asked.

  “In many ways. Not least of which is your terrible fear of rabbits.”

  “Fear of rabbits—” I blinked slow and hard. “You shouldn’t believe everything people tell you. Pauline has been known to generously embroider the truth.”

  He slowly rubbed his chin. “Don’t we all?”

  I studied him, no less than I had Gwyneth, though he was even more of a puzzle. Everything he said seemed to carry a gravity beyond his stated words.

  I’d make Pauline pay for this, beginning with a lecture about rabbits. I turned and walked to the berry bushes. Setting a basket down at my feet, I began filling the other. Rafe’s footsteps crunched on the ground behind me. He stopped at my side and picked up the extra basket. “Truce? For now? I promise not to be an ill-mannered boor.”

  I kept my eyes on the berry bush in front of me, trying to suppress a grin. “Truce,” I answered.

  He plucked several berries, staying close to my side, dropping a few into my basket as though he was getting ahead of me. “I haven’t done this since I was a child,” he said.

  “Then you’re doing quite well. Not one has gone in your mouth yet.”

  “You mean I’m allowed to do that?”

  I smiled inwardly. His voice was almost playful, though I couldn’t imagine any such expression on his face. “No, you’re not allowed,” I replied.

  “Just as well. It’s not a taste I should acquire. There aren’t many berry bushes where I’m from.”

  “And just where would that be?”

  His hand paused on a berry like it was a monumental decision whether to pluck it or not. He finally pulled and expla
ined he was from a small town in the southernmost part of Morrighan. When I asked the name, he said it was very small and had no name.

  It was obvious he didn’t want to reveal exactly where he was from. Maybe he was escaping an unpleasant past like me, but that didn’t mean I had to swallow his story with the first bite. I could play with him a little. “A town with no name? Really? How very odd.” I waited for him to scramble, and he didn’t disappoint me.

  “It’s only a region. A few scattered dwellings at most. We’re farmers there. Mostly farmers. And you? Where are you from?”

  A nameless region? Maybe. And he was strong, fit, tanned from the sun like a farmer might be, but there was also so much that seemed very unfarmerish about him—the way he spoke, even the way he carried himself—and especially his unnerving blue eyes. They were fierce, like a warrior’s. They weren’t the eyes of a content farmer passing his days turning the soil.

  I took the berry still poised in his fingers and popped it in my mouth. Where was I from? I narrowed my eyes and smiled. “A small town in the northernmost part of Morrighan. Mostly farmers. Only a region, really. A few scattered dwellings. At most. No name.”

  He couldn’t restrain a chuckle. “Then we come from opposite but similar worlds, don’t we?”

  I stared at him, entranced that I was able to make him laugh. I watched his smile slowly fade from his face. Gentle lines still creased his eyes. His laugh seemed to relax everything about him. He was younger than I originally thought, nineteen maybe. I was intrigued by—

  My eyes widened. I had been studying him and hadn’t even answered his question. I looked away, my chest thumping, and returned with renewed vigor to my half-filled basket, plucking several green berries before his hand reached out and touched mine.

  “Shall we walk for a bit?” he suggested. “I think this bush is stripped clean unless Berdi wants sour fruit.”

  “Yes, maybe we should move on.”

  He let go of my hand, and we walked a little farther down the canyon, gathering berries as we went. He asked me how long I had worked at the inn, and I told him only a few weeks. “What did you do before that?”

 
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