Sat
Jun 28 2014 12:00pm

Kiss of Deception: Exclusive Excerpt

Mary E. Pearson

Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

In a society steeped in tradition, Princess Lia’s life follows a preordained course. As First Daughter, she is expected to have the revered gift of sight—but she doesn’t—and she knows her parents are perpetrating a sham when they arrange her marriage to secure an alliance with a neighboring kingdom—to a prince she has never met.

On the morning of her wedding, Lia flees to a distant village. She settles into a new life, hopeful when two mysterious and handsome strangers arrive—and unaware that one is the jilted prince and the other an assassin sent to kill her. Deception abounds, and Lia finds herself on the brink of unlocking perilous secrets—even as she finds herself falling in love.In a society steeped in tradition, Princess Lia’s life follows a preordained course.

Get an exclusive sneak peek of Mary E. Pearson's Kiss of Deception (available July 8, 2014) with an exclusive excerpt of Chapters 1 & 2.

Chapter 1

Today was the day a thousand dreams would die and a single dream would be born.

The wind knew. It was the first of June, but cold gusts bit at the hilltop citadelle as fiercely as deepest winter, shaking the windows with curses and winding through drafty halls with warning whispers. There was no escaping what was to come.

For good or bad, the hours were closing in. I closed my eyes against the thought, knowing that soon the day would cleave in two, forever creating the before and after of my life, and it would happen in one swift act that I could no more alter than the color of my eyes.

I pushed away from the window, fogged with my own breath, and left the endless hills of Morrighan to their own worries. It was time for me to meet my day.

The prescribed liturgies passed as they were ordained, the rituals and rites as each had been precisely laid out, all a testament to the greatness of Morrighan and the Remnant from which it was born. I didn’t protest. By this point, numbness had overtaken me, but then midday approached, and my heart galloped again as I faced the last of the steps that kept here from there.

I lay naked, facedown on a stone-hard table, my eyes focused on the floor beneath me while strangers scraped my back with dull knives. I remained perfectly still, even though I knew the knives brushing my skin were held with cautious hands. The bearers were well aware that their lives depended on their skill. Perfect stillness helped me hide the humiliation of my nakedness as strange hands touched me.

Pauline sat nearby watching, probably with worried eyes. I couldn’t see her, only the slate floor beneath me, my long dark hair tumbling down around my face in a swirling black tunnel that blocked the world out—except for the rhythmic rasp of the blades.

The last knife reached lower, scraping the tender hollow of my back just above my buttocks, and I fought the instinct to pull away, but I finally flinched. A collective gasp spread through the room.

“Be still!” my aunt Cloris admonished.

I felt my mother’s hand on my head, gently caressing my hair. “A few more lines, Arabella. That’s all.”

Even though this was offered as comfort, I bristled at the formal name my mother insisted on using, the hand-me-down name that had belonged to so many before me. I wished that at least on this last day in Morrighan, she’d cast formality aside and use the one I favored, the pet name my brothers used, shortening one of my many names to its last three letters. Lia. A simple name that felt truer to who I was.

The scraping ended. “It is finished,” the First Artisan declared. The other artisans murmured their agreement.

I heard the clatter of a tray being set on the table next to me and whiffed the overpowering scent of rose oil. Feet shuffled around to form a circle—my aunts, mother, Pauline, others who’d been summoned to witness the task—and mumbled prayers were sung. I watched the black robe of the priest brush past me, and his voice rose above the others as he drizzled the hot oil on my back. The artisans rubbed it in, their practiced fingers sealing in the countless traditions of the House of Morrighan, deepening the promises written upon my back, heralding the commitments of today and ensuring all their tomorrows.

They can hope, I thought bitterly as my mind jumped out of turn, trying to keep order to the tasks still before me, the ones written only on my heart and not a piece of paper. I barely heard the utterances of the priest, a droning chant that spoke to all of their needs and none of my own.

I was only seventeen. Wasn’t I entitled to my own dreams for the future?

“And for Arabella Celestine Idris Jezelia, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan, the fruits of her sacrifice and the blessings of…”

He prattled on and on, the endless required blessings and sacraments, his voice rising, filling the room, and then when I thought I could stand no more, his very words pinching off my airways, he stopped, and for a merciful sweet moment, silence rang in my ears. I breathed again, and then the final benediction was given.

“For the Kingdoms rose out of the ashes of men and are built on the bones of the lost, and thereunto we shall return if Heaven wills.” He lifted my chin with one hand, and with the thumb of his other hand, he smudged my forehead with ashes.

“So shall it be for this First Daughter of the House of Morrighan,” my mother finished, as was the tradition, and she wiped the ashes away with an oil-dipped cloth.

I closed my eyes and lowered my head. First Daughter. Both blessing and curse. And if the truth be known, a sham.

My mother laid her hand on me again, her palm resting on my shoulder. My skin stung at her touch. Her comfort came too late. The priest offered one last prayer in my mother’s native tongue, a prayer of safekeeping that, oddly, wasn’t tradition, and then she drew her hand away.

More oil was poured, and a low, haunting singsong of prayers echoed through the cold stone chamber, the rose scent heavy on the air and in my lungs. I breathed deeply. In spite of myself, I relished this part, the hot oils and warm hands kneading compliance into knots that had been growing inside me for weeks. The velvet warmth soothed the sting of acid from the lemon mixed with dye, and the flowery fragrance momentarily swept me away to a hidden summer garden where no one could find me. If only it were that easy.

Again, this step was declared finished, and the artisans stepped back from their handiwork. There was an audible gathering of breath as the final results on my back were viewed.

I heard someone shuffle closer. “I daresay he won’t be looking long upon her back with the rest of that view at his disposal.” A titter ran through the room. Aunt Bernette was never one to restrain her words, even with a priest in the room and protocol at stake. My father claimed I got my impulsive tongue from her, though today I’d been warned to control it.

Pauline took my arm and helped me to rise. “Your Highness,” she said as she handed me a soft sheet to wrap around myself, sparing what little dignity I had left. We exchanged a quick knowing glance, which bolstered me, and then she guided me to the full-length mirror, giving me a small silver hand mirror, that I might view the results too. I swept my long hair aside and let the sheet fall enough to expose my lower back.

The others waited in silence for my response. I resisted drawing in a breath. I wouldn’t give my mother that satisfaction, but I couldn’t deny that my wedding kavah was exquisite. It did indeed leave me in awe. The ugly crest of the Kingdom of Dalbreck had been made startlingly beautiful, the snarling lion tamed on my back, the intricate designs gracefully hemming in his claws, the swirling vines of Morrighan weaving in and out with nimble elegance, spilling in a V down my back until the last delicate tendrils clung and swirled in the gentle hollow of my lower spine. The lion was honored and yet cleverly subdued.

My throat tightened, and my eyes stung. It was a kavah I might have loved … might have been proud to wear. I swallowed and imagined the prince when the vows were complete and the wedding cloak lowered, gaping with awe. The lecherous toad. But I gave the artisans their due.

“It is perfection. I thank you, and I’ve no doubt the Kingdom of Dalbreck will from this day forward hold the artisans of Morrighan in highest esteem.” My mother smiled at my effort, knowing that these few words from me were hard-won.

And with that, everyone was ushered away, the remaining preparations to be shared only with my parents, and Pauline, who would assist me. My mother brought the white silk underdress from the wardrobe, a mere wisp of fabric so thin and fluid it melted across her arms. To me it was a useless formality, for it covered very little, being as transparent and helpful as the endless layers of tradition. The gown came next, the back plunging in the same V so as to frame the kavah honoring the prince’s kingdom and displaying his bride’s new allegiance.

My mother tightened the laces in the hidden structure of the dress, pulling it snug so the bodice appeared to effortlessly cling to my waist even without fabric stretching across my back. It was an engineering feat as remarkable as the great bridge of Golgata, maybe more so, and I wondered if the seamstresses had cast a bit of magic into the fabric and threads. It was better to think on these details than what the short hour would bring. My mother turned me ceremoniously to face the mirror.

Despite my resentment, I was hypnotized. It was truly the most beautiful gown I had ever seen. Stunningly elegant, the dense Quiassé lace of local lace makers was the only adornment around the dipping neckline. Simplicity. The lace flowed in a V down the bodice to mirror the cut of the back of the dress. I looked like someone else in it, someone older and wiser. Someone with a pure heart that held no secrets. Someone … not like me.

I walked away without comment and stared out the window, my mother’s soft sigh following on my heels. In the far distance, I saw the lone red spire of Golgata, its single crumbling ruin all that remained of the once massive bridge that spanned the vast inlet. Soon, it too would be gone, swallowed up like the rest of the great bridge. Even the mysterious engineering magic of the Ancients couldn’t defy the inevitable. Why should I try?

My stomach lurched, and I shifted my gaze closer to the bottom of the hill, where wagons lumbered on the road far below the citadelle, heading toward the town square, perhaps laden with fruit, or flowers, or kegs of wine from the Morrighan vineyards. Fine carriages pulled by matching ribboned steeds dotted the lane as well.

Maybe in one of those carriages, my oldest brother, Walther, and his young bride, Greta, sat with fingers entwined on their way to my wedding, scarcely able to break their gazes from each other. And maybe my other brothers were already at the square, flashing their smiles at young girls who drew their fancy. I remembered seeing Regan, dreamy-eyed and whispering to the coachman’s daughter just a few days ago in a dark hallway, and Bryn dallied with a new girl each week, unable to settle on just one. Three older brothers I adored, all free to fall in love and marry anyone they chose. The girls free to choose as well. Everyone free, including Pauline, who had a beau who would return to her at month’s end.

“How did you do it, Mother?” I asked, still staring at the passing carriages below. “How did you travel all the way from Gastineux to marry a toad you didn’t love?”

“Your father is not a toad,” my mother said sternly.

I whirled to face her. “A king maybe, but a toad nonetheless. Do you mean to tell me that when you married a stranger twice your age, you didn’t think him a toad?”

My mother’s gray eyes rested calmly on me. “No, I did not. It was my destiny and my duty.”

A weary sigh broke from my chest. “Because you were a First Daughter.”

The subject of First Daughter was one my mother always cleverly steered away from. Today, with only the two of us present and no other distractions, she couldn’t turn away. I watched her stiffen, her chin rising in good royal form. “It’s an honor, Arabella.”

“But I don’t have the gift of First Daughter. I’m not a Siarrah. Dalbreck will soon discover I’m not the asset they suppose me to be. This wedding is a sham.”

“The gift may come in time,” she answered weakly.

I didn’t argue this point. It was known that most First Daughters came into their gift by womanhood, and I had been a woman for four years now. I’d shown no signs of any gift. My mother clung to false hopes. I turned away, looking out the window again.

“Even if it doesn’t come,” my mother continued, “the wedding is no sham. This union is about far more than just one asset. The honor and privilege of a First Daughter in a royal bloodline is a gift in itself. It carries history and tradition with it. That’s all that matters.”

“Why First Daughter? Can you be sure the gift isn’t passed to a son? Or a Second Daughter?”

“It’s happened, but … not to be expected. And not tradition.”

And is it tradition to lose your gift too? Those unsaid words hung razor sharp between us, but even I couldn’t wound my mother with them. My father hadn’t consulted with her on matters of state since early in their marriage, but I had heard the stories of before, when her gift was strong and what she said mattered. That is, if any of it was even true. I wasn’t sure anymore.

I had little patience for such gibberish. I liked my words and reasoning simple and straightforward. And I was so tired of hearing about tradition that I was certain if the word were spoken aloud one more time, my head would explode. My mother was from another time.

I heard her approach and felt her warm arms circle about me. My throat swelled. “My precious daughter,” she whispered against my ear, “whether the gift comes or doesn’t come is of little matter. Don’t worry yourself so. It’s your wedding day.”

To a toad. I had caught a glimpse of the King of Dalbreck when he came to draw up the agreement—as if I were a horse given in trade to his son. The king was as decrepit and crooked as an old crone’s arthritic toe—old enough to be my own father’s father. Hunched and slow, he needed assistance up the steps to the Grand Hall. Even if the prince was a fraction of his age, he’d still be a withered, toothless fop. The thought of him touching me, much less—

I shivered at the thought of bony old hands caressing my cheek or shriveled sour lips meeting mine. I kept my gaze fixed out the window, but saw nothing beyond the glass. “Why could I not have at least inspected him first?”

My mother’s arms dropped from around me. “Inspect a prince? Our relationship with Dalbreck is already tenuous at best. You’d have us insult their kingdom with such a request when Morrighan is hoping to create a crucial alliance?”

“I’m not a soldier in Father’s army.”

My mother drew closer, brushing my cheek, and whispered, “Yes, my dear. You are.”

A chill danced down my spine.

She gave me a last squeeze and stepped back. “It’s time. I’ll go retrieve the wedding cloak from the vault,” she said, and left.

I crossed the room to my wardrobe and flung open the doors, sliding out the bottom drawer and lifting a green velvet pouch that held a slim jeweled dagger. It had been a gift on my sixteenth birthday from my brothers, a gift I was never allowed to use—at least openly—but the back of my dressing chamber door bore the gouged marks of my secret practice. I snatched a few more belongings, wrapping them in a chemise, and tied it all with ribbon to secure it.

Pauline returned from dressing herself, and I handed her the small bundle.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said, a jumble of nerves at the last-minute preparations. She left the chamber just as my mother returned with the cloak.

“Take care of what?” my mother asked.

“I gave her a few more things I want to take with me.”

“The belongings you need were sent off in trunks yesterday,” she said as she crossed the room toward my bed.

“There were a few we forgot.”

She shook her head, reminding me there was precious little room in the carriage and that the journey to Dalbreck was a long one.

“I’ll manage,” I answered.

She carefully laid the cloak across my bed. It had been steamed and hung in the vault so no fold or wrinkle would tarnish its beauty. I ran my hand along the short velvet nap. The blue was as dark as midnight, and the rubies, tourmalines, and sapphires circling the edges were its stars. The jewels would prove useful. It was tradition that the cloak should be placed on the bride’s shoulders by both her parents, and yet my mother had returned alone.

“Where is—” I started to ask, but then I heard an army of footsteps echoing in the hallway. My heart sank lower than it already was. He wasn’t coming alone, even for this. My father entered the chamber flanked by the Lord Viceregent on one side, the Chancellor and the Royal Scholar on the other, and various minions of his cabinet parading on their heels. I knew the Viceregent was only doing his job—he had pulled me aside shortly after the documents were signed and told me that he alone had argued against the marriage—but he was ultimately a rigid man of duty like the rest of them. I especially disliked the Scholar and Chancellor, as they were well aware, but I felt little guilt about it, since I knew the feeling was mutual. My skin crawled whenever I neared them, as though I had just walked through a field of blood-sucking vermin. They, more than anyone, were probably glad to be rid of me.

My father approached, kissed both of my cheeks, and stepped back to look at me, finally breathing a hearty sigh. “As beautiful as your mother on our wedding day.”

I wondered if the unusual display of emotion was for the benefit of those who looked on. I rarely saw a moment of affection pass between my mother and father, but then in a brief second I watched his eyes shift from me to her and linger there. My mother stared back at him, and I wondered what passed between them. Love? Or regret at love lost and what might have been? The uncertainty alone filled a strange hollow within me, and a hundred questions sprang to my lips, but with the Chancellor and Scholar and the impatient entourage looking on, I was reluctant to ask any of them. Maybe that was my father’s intent.

The Timekeeper, a pudgy man with bulging eyes, pulled out his ever-present pocket watch. He and the others ushered my father around as if they were the ones who ruled the kingdom instead of the other way around. “We’re pressed for time, Your Majesty,” he reminded my father.

The Viceregent gave me a sympathetic glance but nodded agreement. “We don’t want to keep the royal family of Dalbreck waiting on this momentous occasion. As you well know, Your Majesty, it wouldn’t be well received.”

The spell and gaze were broken. My mother and father lifted the cloak and set it about my shoulders, securing the clasp at my neck, and then my father alone raised the hood over my head and again kissed each cheek, but this time with much more reserve, only fulfilling protocol. “You serve the Kingdom of Morrighan well on this day, Arabella.”

Lia.

He hated the name Jezelia because it had no precedent in the royal lineage, no precedent anywhere, he had argued, but my mother had insisted upon it without explanation. On this point she had remained unyielding. It was probably the last time my father conceded anything to her wishes. I never would have known as much if not for Aunt Bernette, and even she treaded carefully around the subject, still a prickly thorn between my parents.

I searched his face. The fleeting tenderness of just a moment past was gone, his thoughts already moving on to matters of state, but I held his gaze, hoping for more. There was nothing. I lifted my chin, standing taller. “Yes, I do serve the kingdom well, as I should, Your Majesty. I am, after all, a soldier in your army.”

He frowned and looked quizzically to my mother. Her head shook softly, silently dismissing the matter. My father, always the king first and father second, was satisfied with ignoring my remark, because as always, other matters did press. He turned and walked away with his entourage, saying he’d meet me at the abbey, his duty to me now fulfilled. Duty. That was a word I hated as much as tradition.

“Are you ready?” my mother asked when the others had left the room.

I nodded. “But I have to attend to a personal need before we leave. I’ll meet you in the lower hall.”

“I can—”

“Please, Mother—” My voice broke for the first time. “I just need a few minutes.”

My mother relented, and I listened to the lonely echo of her footsteps as she retreated down the hallway.

“Pauline?” I whispered, swiping at my cheeks.

Pauline entered my room through the dressing chamber. We stared at each other, no words necessary, clearly understanding what lay ahead of us, every detail of the day already wrestled with during a long, sleepless night.

“There’s still time to change your mind. Are you sure?” Pauline asked, giving me a last chance to back out.

Sure? My chest squeezed with pain, a pain so deep and real I wondered if hearts really were capable of breaking. Or was it fear that pierced me? I pressed my hand hard against my chest, trying to soothe the stab I felt there. Maybe this was the point of cleaving. “There’s no turning back. The choice was made for me,” I answered. “From this moment on, this is the destiny that I’ll have to live with, for better or worse.”

“I pray the better, my friend,” Pauline said, nodding her understanding. And with that, we hurried down the empty arched hallway toward the back of the citadelle and then down the dark servants’ stairway. We passed no one—everyone was either busy with preparations down at the abbey or waiting at the front of the citadelle for the royal procession to the square.

We emerged through a small wooden door with thick black hinges into blinding sunlight, the wind whipping at our dresses and throwing back my hood. I spotted the back fortress gate only used for hunts and discreet departures, already open as ordered. Pauline led me across a muddy paddock to the shady hidden wall of the carriage house where a wide-eyed stable boy waited with two saddled horses. His eyes grew impossibly wider as I approached. “Your Highness, you’re to take a carriage already prepared for you,” he said, choking on his words as they tumbled out. “It’s waiting by the steps at the front of the citadelle. If you—”

“The plans have changed,” I said firmly, and I gathered my gown up in great bunches so I could get a foothold in the stirrup. The straw-haired boy’s mouth fell open as he looked at my once pristine gown, the hem already sloshed with mud, now smearing my sleeves and lace bodice and, worse, the Morrighan jeweled wedding cloak. “But—”

“Hurry! A hand up!” I snapped, taking the reins from him.

He obeyed, helping Pauline in similar fashion.

“What shall I tell—”

I didn’t hear what else he said, the galloping hooves stampeding out all arguments past and present. With Pauline at my side, in one swift act that could never be undone, an act that ended a thousand dreams but gave birth to one, I bolted for the cover of the forest and never looked back.

Chapter 2

We screamed. We yelled with all the power of our lungs, knowing the wind, hills, and distance plucked our nervous freedom from any ears that might listen. We screamed with giddy abandon and a primal need to believe in our flight. If we didn’t believe, fear would overtake us. I already felt it nipping at my back as I pushed harder.

We headed north, aware that the stable boy would watch us until we vanished into the forest. When we were well within its cover, we found the streambed that I’d seen on hunts with my brothers and doubled back through the trickling waters, walking in the shallow stream until we found a rocky embankment on the other side to use for our exit, leaving no prints or trail behind us for others to follow.

Once we hit firm level ground again, we dug in our heels and rode as if a monster were chasing us. We rode and we rode, following a little-used path that hugged the dense pines, which would give us refuge if we needed to duck in quickly. Sometimes we were dizzy with laughter, sometimes tears trickled backward across our cheeks, pushed by our speed, but most of the time we were silent, not quite believing we had actually done it.

After an hour, I wasn’t sure what ached more, my thighs, my cramping calves, or my bruised backside, all unaccustomed to anything more than a stiff royal gait because these last few months my father would not allow more. My fingers were numb from gripping the reins, but Pauline didn’t stop, so neither did I.

My dress streamed behind me, now wedding me to a life of uncertainty, but that frightened me far less than the certain life I had faced. This life was a dream of my own making, one where my imagination was my only boundary. It was a life that I alone commanded.

I lost track of time, the rhythm of the hooves the only thing that mattered, each beat widening the divide. Finally, almost in unison, our gleaming chestnut Ravians snorted and slowed of their own accord, as if a secret message had been spoken between them. Ravians were the pride of the Morrighan stables, and these had given us all they were worth. I looked to what little of the west I could see above the treetops. There were still at least three hours of daylight. We couldn’t stop yet. We pressed on at a slower pace, and finally as the sun disappeared behind the Andeluchi Range, we searched for a safe place to camp for the night.

I listened carefully as we rode the horses through the trees and scouted for what might be a likely shelter. My neck prickled when the sudden distant squawk of birds pealed through the forest like a warning. We came upon the crumbled ruins of the Ancients, partial walls and pillars that were now more forest than civilization. They were thick with green moss and lichen, which was probably the only thing still knitting the remains upright. Maybe the modest ruins were once part of a glorious temple, but now ferns and vines were reclaiming them for the earth. Pauline kissed the back of her hand as both blessing and protection from spirits that might linger and clicked the reins to hurry past. I didn’t kiss my hand, nor hurry past, but instead surveyed the green bones of another time with curiosity, as I always did, and wondered at the people who had created them.

We finally came to a small clearing. With a last glimmer of daylight overhead, and both of us sagging in our saddles, we agreed silently that this was the place to camp. All I wanted to do was collapse on the grass and sleep until morning, but the horses were just as weary and still deserved our attention, since they were our only real way to escape.

We removed the saddles, letting them fall with an unceremonious clunk to the ground because we didn’t have the strength for more, then shook out the damp blankets and hung them on a branch to dry. We patted the animals’ rears, and they went straight to the stream for a drink.

Pauline and I collapsed together, both too tired to eat, though neither of us had eaten all day. This morning we had been too nervous over our clandestine plans to even have a proper meal. Though I’d considered running away for weeks, it had been unthinkable even for me, until my farewell feast last night with my family in Aldrid Hall. That was when everything changed and the unthinkable suddenly seemed like my only possible choice. When toasts and laughter were flying through the room, and I was suffocating under the weight of the revelry and the satisfied smiles of the cabinet, my eyes met Pauline’s. She was standing in waiting against the far wall with the other attendants. When I shook my head, she knew. I couldn’t do it. She nodded in return.

It was a silent exchange that no one else noticed, but late in the evening when everyone had retired, she returned to my chamber and the plans poured out between us. There was so little time and so much to arrange, and almost all of it hinged on getting two horses saddled with no one the wiser. At dawn, Pauline bypassed the Stable Master, who was busy preparing teams for the royal procession, and spoke quietly with the youngest stable boy, an inexperienced lad who would be too intimidated to question a direct request from the queen’s court. So far, our hasty, patched-together plans had worked out.

Though we were too weary to eat, as the sun dropped lower and the light grew dimmer, our exhaustion gave way to fear. We scavenged for firewood to keep creatures that lurked in the forest a safe distance from us, or at least allow us to see their teeth before they devoured us.

Darkness came quickly and masked the whole world beyond the small flickering circle warming our feet. I watched the flames lick the air in front of us, listened to the crackle, the hiss, and the rustle of settling wood. These were the only sounds, but we listened for more.

“Do you suppose there are bears?” Pauline asked.

“Most certainly.” But my mind had already turned to tigers. I had faced one eye to eye when I was only ten, so close I felt his breath, his snarling, his spit, his utter immensity about to engulf me. I had waited to die. Why he hadn’t attacked instantly I didn’t know, but a distant shout from my brother searching for me was all that saved my life. The animal disappeared into the forest as quickly as he had arrived. No one believed me when I told them. There were reports of tigers in the Cam Lanteux, but their numbers were few. Morrighan wasn’t their natural realm. The beast’s glassy yellow eyes still haunted my dreams. I peered past the flames into the darkness, where my dagger was still inside my saddlebag, just steps outside our safe circle of light. How foolish I was to think of it only now.

“Or worse than bears, there might be barbarians,” I said with mock terror in my voice, trying to lighten both our moods.

Pauline’s eyes grew wide, though a smile played behind them. “I’ve heard they breed like rabbits and bite the heads off small animals.”

“And speak only in snorting grunts.” I’d heard the stories too. Soldiers brought tales back from their patrols about the barbarians’ brutal ways and growing numbers. It was only because of them that the longstanding animosity between Morrighan and Dalbreck had been put aside and an uneasy alliance struck—at my expense. A large, fierce kingdom on the other side of the continent with a growing population and rumored to be stretching its borders was more of a threat than a somewhat civilized neighboring kingdom that was at least descended from the chosen Remnant. Together, the combined forces of Morrigan and Dalbreck could be great, but alone they were miserably vulnerable. Only the Great River and the Cam Lanteux held the barbarians back.

Pauline threw another dry branch onto the fire. “You’re gifted at languages—you should have no problem with the barbarians’ grunts. That’s how half the king’s court speaks.”

We broke into giggles, imitating the Chancellor’s rumbles and the Scholar’s haughty sighs.

“Have you ever seen one?” she asked.

“Me? See a barbarian? I’ve been kept on such a short chain these last few years, I’ve scarcely seen anything.” My free days of roaming the hills and chasing after my brothers ended abruptly when my parents decided I was beginning to look like a woman so I should behave like one too. I was ripped from the freedoms I shared with Walther, Regan, and Bryn, like exploring the ruins in the woods, racing our horses across meadows, hunting small game, and getting into a fair amount of mischief. As we got older, their mischiefs continued to be shrugged off, but mine were not, and I knew from that point that I was measured by a different stick than my brothers.

After my activities were restricted, I developed a knack for slipping out unnoticed—as I did today. Not a skill my parents would have prized, though I was quite proud of it. The Scholar suspected my meanderings and set weak traps, which I easily avoided. He knew I had rummaged through the ancient text room, which was forbidden, the texts supposedly too delicate for careless hands like mine. But back then, even though I’d managed to sneak away from the confines of the citadelle, there was really nowhere to go from there. Everyone in Civica knew who I was, and word would certainly have gotten back to my parents. As a result, my escapes had mostly been limited to occasional nighttime forays to dim back rooms for games of cards or dice with my brothers and their trusted friends who knew how to keep their mouths shut about Walther’s little sister, and who might have even been sympathetic to my plight. My brothers had always enjoyed the look of surprise on their friends’ faces when I gave it as well as I took it. Words and topics were not spared because of my gender or title, and those scandalous chinwags educated me in ways that a royal tutor never could.

I shaded my eyes with my hand as if I were peering into the dark woods searching for them. “I’d welcome the diversion of a savage right now. Barbarians, show yourselves!” I shouted. There was no answer. “I do believe we frighten them.”

Pauline laughed, but our nervous bravado hung in the air between us. We both knew there had been occasional sightings of small bands of them in the woods crossing from Venda into the forbidden territories of the Cam Lanteux. Sometimes they even ventured boldly into the kingdoms of Morrighan and Dalbreck, disappearing as easily as wolves when they were pursued. For now, we were still too close to the heart of Morrighan to need to be worried about them. I hoped. We were more likely to encounter vagabonds, the drifting nomads who sometimes strayed from the Cam Lanteux. I had never seen any myself, but had heard of their unusual ways. They rode in their colorful wagons to trade trinkets, buy supplies, sell their mysterious potions, or sometimes play music for a coin or two, but still, they weren’t the ones who worried me most. My greatest worries were my father and what I had dragged Pauline into. There was so much we hadn’t had time to discuss last night.

I watched her as she absently stared into the fire, adding kindling as needed. Pauline was resourceful, but I knew she wasn’t fearless, and that made her courage today far greater than mine. She had everything to lose by what we had done. I had everything to gain.

“I’m sorry, Pauline. What a tangle I’ve made for you.”

She shrugged. “I was going to leave anyway. I told you.”

“But not like this. You could have left under far more favorable circumstances.”

She grinned, unable to disagree. “Maybe.” Her grin slowly faded, her eyes searching my face. “But I never could have left for as important a reason. We can’t always wait for the perfect timing.”

I didn’t deserve a friend like her. I ached with the compassion she had shown me. “We’ll be hunted,” I told her. “There will be a bounty on my head.” This was something we hadn’t talked about in the wee hours of the morning.

She looked away and shook her head vigorously. “No, not from your own father.”

I sighed, hugging my shins closer and staring at the glowing embers near my feet. “Especially from my father. I’ve committed an act of treason, the same as if a soldier of his army had deserted. And worse, I’ve humiliated him. I’ve made him look weak. His cabinet won’t let him forget that. He’ll have to act.”

She couldn’t disagree with this either. From the time I was twelve, as a member of the royal court, I’d been required to attend and witness the executions of traitors. It was a rare occurrence, since public hangings proved an effective deterrent, but we both knew the story of my father’s own sister. She had died before I was born when she threw herself from the East Tower. Her son had deserted his regiment, and she knew that even the king’s nephew wouldn’t be spared. He wasn’t. He was hung the next day, and they were both buried in disgrace in the same unmarked grave. Some lines couldn’t be crossed in Morrighan. Loyalty was one of them.

Pauline frowned. “But you’re not a soldier, Lia. You’re his daughter. You had no choice, and that meant I had no choice. No one should be forced to marry someone they don’t love.” She lay back, gazing up at the stars and wrinkling her nose. “Especially not some old stuffy, puffy prince.”

We broke into giggles again, and more than the air I breathed, I was thankful for Pauline. We watched the twinkling constellations together, and she told me about Mikael, the promises they’d made to each other, the sweet things he whispered in her ear, and the plans they’d made for when he returned from his last patrol with the Royal Guard at the end of this month. I saw the love in her eyes and the change in her voice when she spoke of him.

She told me how much she missed him but said she was confident he would find her because he knew her like no one else in the world knew her. They had talked of Terravin for countless hours—of the life they’d build there and the children they’d raise. The more she talked, the more the ache within me grew. I had only vague, empty thoughts of the future, mostly of what I didn’t want, while Pauline had fashioned dreams with real people and real details. She had created a future with someone else.

I wondered what it would be like to have someone who knew me so well, someone who would look right into my soul, someone whose very touch sent all other thoughts from my mind. I tried to imagine someone who hungered for the same things I did and wanted to spend the rest of his life with me, and not because it fulfilled a loveless agreement on paper.

Pauline squeezed my hand and sat up, adding more wood to the fire. “We should get some sleep so we can make an early start.”

She was right. We had at least a week’s ride ahead of us, assuming we didn’t get lost. Pauline hadn’t been to Terravin since she was a child and wasn’t sure of the way, and I had never been there at all, so we could only follow her instincts and rely on the help of passing strangers. I spread a blanket on the ground for us to sleep on and brushed the needles of the forest floor from my hair.

She glanced at me hesitantly. “Do you mind if I say the holy remembrances first? I’ll say them softly.”

“Of course you should,” I whispered, trying to display a modicum of respect for her sake and feeling a twinge of guilt that I wasn’t compelled to say them myself. Pauline was faithful, while I hadn’t made a secret of my disdain for the traditions that had dictated my future.

She knelt, saying the holy remembrances, her voice hypnotic, like the soft chords of the harp that echoed throughout the abbey. I watched her, thinking how foolish fate was. She’d have made a far better First Daughter of Morrighan, the daughter my parents would have wanted, quiet and discreet of tongue, patient, loyal to the ways of old, pure of heart, perceptive to the unsaid, closer to having a gift than I would ever be, perfect for a First Daughter in all ways.

I lay back and listened to the story she chanted, the story of the original First Daughter using the gift the gods gave her to lead the chosen Remnant away from the devastation to safety and a new land, leaving behind a ravaged world and building a new, hopeful one. In her sweet lilt, the story was beautiful, redemptive, compelling, and I became lost in its rhythm, lost in the depth of the woods surrounding us, lost in the world that lay beyond, lost in the magic of a time gone by. In her tender notes, the story reached all the way to the beginning of the universe and back again. I could almost make sense of it.

I stared into the circle of sky high above the pines, distant and untouchable, sparkling, alive, and a longing grew within me to reach out and share its magic. The trees reached for the magic too, then shivered in unison as if an army of ghosts had just swept across their upper boughs—an entire knowing world just beyond my reach.

I thought of all my hidden moments as a child, sneaking away in the middle of the night to the calmest part of the citadelle—the roof—a place where the constant noise was hushed and I became one of those quiet specks connected to the universe. I felt close there, to something I couldn’t name.

If I could only reach out and touch the stars, I would know everything. I would understand.

Know what, my darling?

This, I would say, pressing my hand against my chest. I had no words to describe the ache inside me.

There’s nothing to know, sweet child. It’s only the chill of the night. My mother would gather me in her arms and lead me back to bed. Later, when my nighttime wanderings didn’t stop, she had a lock added to the rooftop door just out of my reach.

Pauline finally finished, her last words a hushed reverent whisper. So shall it be for evermore.

“Evermore,” I whispered to myself, wondering just how long that was.

She curled up on the blanket next to me, and I pulled the wedding cloak up over both of us. The sudden silence made the woods take a bold step closer, and our circle of light grew smaller.

Pauline quickly fell asleep, but the events of the day still churned inside me. It didn’t matter that I was exhausted. My tired muscles twitched, and my mind jumped from one thought to the next like a hapless cricket dodging a stampede of feet.

My only consolation as I looked up at the blinking stars was that the prince of Dalbreck was probably still awake too, furiously jostling home on a rutted road, his old bones aching with pain in a cold, uncomfortable carriage—with no young bride to warm him.

 

 

***
Copyright  2014 by Mary E. Pearson.
***
Learn more about or oder a copy of Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, available July 8, 2014:

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Mary E. Pearson is the author of seven novels for teens, including the popular Jenna Fox trilogy. She writes full-time from her home in Carlsbad, California, where she lives with her husband and two dogs.

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1 comment
Jessica Rice
1. Jessicle
I like this! Sounds like an excellent start to an epic adventure! With a dash of romance, of course :)
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