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The Deceiver's Heart, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  “I won’t.”

  “You will.” He showed me a stone embedded into his grip glove, one that looked like a pearl, only as gray and as lined as his face. “This will be my wedding gift to you, my dear. It will register everything you see and hear while you are with the Coracks. Once I get it back, I will have the means to find the Olden Blade. Then I will destroy them.”

  At first, I wasn’t sure why he was telling me all this so freely. Then his grip glove returned to my forehead, and with a tremor of fear surging through me, I understood. “You’re taking my memory of this conversation?”

  He laughed. “No, my dear. I’m taking much more than that.” His fingertips widened, then pressed down on the sides and top of my head. “I’ll take everything I want from you. Darrow, those three years in the Lava Fields, your training with a sword. I’ll take it all and rebuild your memories with ideas more suited to a loyal daughter of the Dominion.”

  I squirmed, attempting to stop him, but I already felt his magic exploring my past, infecting my thoughts, ready to erase. The harder I fought it, the tighter he squeezed on my heart. “Please don’t do this!”

  “I already am.” With his fingers pressing down on my brow, Endrick nodded toward a man in the corner of the room. “That is your father, Sir Henry, who loves you, and you love him. Every memory of a father is of him, is it not?”

  More relaxed now, I smiled over at my father. “Of course it is.”

  When my eyes roamed back to Endrick, he said, “You will forget every event that led to you finding the Olden Blade and becoming the Infidante, and everything that connected you to the Corack rebellion.”

  I’d heard of the Corack rebellion. They were thugs and thieves and liars, and wholly unconnected to me, thankfully.

  Endrick continued, “I am your king, and you will bow to me, obey my every command, and seek to serve me.”

  “What is your command, my Lord?” That seemed to please him.

  Lord Endrick repositioned his fingers and I drew in a gasp, feeling something—magic, perhaps?—shift away from my mind. “I have only one command, my dear, and I am burying it deep within your heart. You will not even remember my words until the time comes to act, but when you hear them, you will know that you must obey.”

  “What must I do?”

  He smiled, and I felt a pinch inside my chest. “There is a rumor of great concern to me. Find the Corack boy who brought you into Woodcourt and kill him. You have seven days in which to succeed. Fail to do this, and you will die.”

  “Yes, my Lord.” I nodded at him, eager to obey, even as my father looked on with concern. I briefly wondered why.

  Lord Endrick began brushing his hand across my forehead, and with each stroke I became increasingly tired. “Sleep now. When you wake up, you are Kestra Dallisor. You mean nothing to Antora save for one purpose, and that is to carry out my orders. You are mine, child. You are a weapon of the Dominion.”

  My eyes were already growing heavy. His words floated through my head like tufts of clouds I might reach for but could never catch.

  “What if she fails?” my father asked.

  “I have another spy in place to ensure my success.”

  His words seemed important, like they should have mattered to me somehow, but they didn’t. Nothing mattered.

  Yet one last spark flared within me as my heart reached out to try to clutch a single thought before it was taken from me too.

  Save Simon.

  The words lit through me for a brief instant, then were gone.

  I didn’t know who Simon was or why he needed saving.

  And then the name itself vanished.

  “How do you know she will obey?” my father asked, believing me already to be asleep.

  “Because Antorans have simple minds. When she awakes, she will only remember what I have allowed her to keep or what I have inserted in place of what I have stolen. She will be on our side.”

  I would be on his side. That was my final thought before falling asleep. When I awoke, I’d be his uncaged wolf, at his service.

  If I refused, he would kill me.

  For I was an Ironheart now.

  I first saw her in the market square.

  It was the last place I’d expected her to be, but the greater surprise was how casually she wandered from stall to stall, carefree, even aimless, while she openly laughed and joked with those around her, as if the most serious concern on her mind was whether to wear red or blue at supper tonight. It was so unlike the Kestra Dallisor I had known that I moved in closer, wanting to be certain it was her.

  This was her. Same dark hair, same smile. Same compelling eyes.

  Same, but not the same.

  Her long hair was elaborately braided with ribbons, probably by one of the four girls surrounding her, competing with one another to fulfill Kestra’s every wish before she thought to express it. I hadn’t seen that gray longcoat before, nor the green dress beneath it, and I wondered if the Olden Blade was hidden beneath it, against her thigh. She always kept a weapon there, and since she had claimed the Olden Blade, it had not left her possession.

  It was the sole weapon that could kill Lord Endrick, and she alone could wield it.

  Against my wishes, she had returned here, to the capital of Highwyn, less than a fortnight after renouncing her place within a family that loyally served Endrick. She was here to kill the king.

  If that was still her plan, then why was she in this marketplace, holding up dresses to herself and dancing behind them? Whispering to her ladies-in-waiting, and causing them to burst with laughter?

  The plan had changed, obviously. But I had rushed here from the southern tip of Antora as soon as I was able to ride. I’d barely slept, eaten only what I could forage along the way, and had been desperately worried for her safety. It was good to see her safe. It was good to see her at all, but something still felt wrong.

  I moved toward her, careful to avoid drawing the attention of her guards, two burly men who were watching her with uncommon focus. I didn’t recognize either of them, but I had no doubt Sir Henry would have described me to every Loyalist in the city and promised a significant reward for my capture.

  My arrest—and execution—would be swift, painful, and public, not only for Kestra’s kidnapping, but also because I was a Corack, part of the rebellion.

  Or rather, I used to be a Corack. Now I was on my own. Still committed to helping Kestra complete her quest. Still committed to Kestra. She and I needed to talk somewhere in private. Not here.

  By now, I was one stall away from her. Through the crowd of traders, buyers, and a few ragged children hoping to steal a bite to eat, I only saw Kestra. Seeing her again was like my first sip of water in weeks, my first spark of daylight in a darkened world.

  The intensity of my stare must have caught her attention. Our eyes met, and at first I thought she knew me, but then she blinked and almost immediately looked away, clearly uncomfortable, then loudly told her attendants it was time to move on.

  I followed, curious about her strange reaction. Obviously, she’d be as surprised to see me here as I’d been to see her, but what I saw wasn’t surprise, nor excitement or relief or concern.

  It simply wasn’t anything. She’d looked past me like I was an open window.

  Kestra was nearly to the edge of the market now, standing beside the road and probably waiting for her carriage. If she and I were going to talk, it needed to be now. I needed to separate her from her attendants. I needed a big distraction.

  I moved closer, hoping to figure out something by the time I reached her. Except someone linked one arm with mine, pulling me back, and a voice hissed in my other ear, “Simon, no.”

  I turned to see Trina, a Corack who had been part of our original mission to force Kestra to find the Olden Blade. Trina had hated Kestra from the beginning. She was the last person I wanted to see now.

  The person who had grabbed my arm was Gabe, another Corack and a longtime friend. Or maybe he wasn�
�t a friend anymore. Not if he was here with Trina. Not if he had chosen sides against me.

  I freed my arm and scowled at them both. “What are you doing here?”

  “What are you doing?” Trina countered. “Before leaving the Hiplands, Tenger told you to let us handle this!”

  “And you think I trust him anymore? That I trust you?” Any vow I’d made to the Coracks seemed irrelevant after Captain Tenger tried to kill me, and then Kestra.

  “You trust me,” Gabe said with a half-smile.

  “I don’t trust the Coracks. I don’t trust whatever orders Tenger gave you.” My glare shifted to Trina. “You thought you were the Infidante, but it’s not—”

  “I don’t need that reminder,” she snapped. “But for now, all we care about is making sure Kestra still has the Olden Blade, and that she’s still prepared to use it against Lord Endrick. Neither of those questions are certain.”

  By then, Kestra was climbing into her carriage. She waved at a few Loyalists, promising to see them again later that night, then giggled again with her ladies. Since when did Kestra giggle? And what was happening tonight?

  “We’re fools to let her leave here,” I said.

  “We have another plan in place already,” Trina said. “That’s what we’re trying to tell you; everything is arranged.”

  “And it can’t involve you,” Gabe said. “Sorry, Simon, but you left the Coracks, and this is our mission. I understand why you want to be involved, you have feelings for Kestra—”

  “This isn’t about that,” I said. “I’m as concerned about the Blade as both of you.”

  “You came here for Kestra,” Trina said flatly. “You’re not objective, which means you’re not safe. But we will get her out of Highwyn tonight, I promise.”

  I started to ask, to insist I be made part of the plot, when a cheer rose in the market behind us. I followed the applause to the sound of horses clopping up the cobblestone street, and there was Sir Basil, waving at the people and soaking in their affection like the thirsty rag he was.

  Gabe pushed me off the street with him to make way for the horses. Basil never noticed us.

  Why was he here, and so triumphantly? Kestra’s plan had been to reject marriage to Sir Basil, which would force a meeting with Lord Endrick. Basil should have been back in Reddengrad now, wringing his hands while his father arranged a wedding with some other pawn from a powerful family.

  But he was here. Which meant Kestra’s plan had failed in some way.

  Which meant there would still be a wedding. That was happening tonight.

  Through gritted teeth, I asked, “Exactly when were you planning to get Kestra out of Highwyn? Before or after they’re married?”

  Trina sighed. “Simon—”

  “She’ll be with her attendants for the rest of the day,” Gabe said. “Our only choice is to wait until she’s alone … or mostly alone.”

  My hand instinctively found my sword. That meant after the wedding, which was entirely unacceptable.

  Trina started toward me until I raised the sword. “Do not interfere!”

  Interfere? Of course I would interfere.

  Gabe raised his hands, trying to calm me. “Look at yourself now, Simon. This is why you have to stay away tonight, for our safety and Kestra’s.”

  “I’m coming with you.”

  “How? Every guard in Highwyn is watching for you. If you’re caught, our plan falls apart and Kestra ends up dead.”

  I took a deep breath. “Tell me the plan, then.”

  Trina shook her head. “All you need to know is that we’re going to keep Kestra alive and make sure the Olden Blade is safe.”

  “Are you stopping the wedding?”

  Trina and Gabe exchanged a glance. That was all I needed to know. I marched away, ignoring their calls for me to stop.

  I’d come up with a plan of my own.

  By the end of this evening, I’d be married, a thought that had sent flutters through my belly at least a hundred times in the last hour. Could anything be more absurd?

  I didn’t feel old enough to become someone’s wife, and especially not to take on the role of future queen of Reddengrad, Sir Basil’s country to the south of Antora. It was difficult to imagine committing my life to someone I barely knew.

  “My lady, you are late. I warned you not to go to the market.” Although she was new to my service, my handmaiden, Imri Stout, seemed to be tired of me already. That was little surprise. Imri was originally from our neighboring country of Brill. Brillians considered themselves superior to all other people in the western realm, so I was sure it was incomprehensible to her to find herself subject to the Dominion.

  I sat up straight while Imri prepared my hair, setting it in curls and ribbons and with tiny flowers to dot the dark tresses as they fell down my back. Then I stood with my arms held out as my ladies dressed me in a silver wedding gown. It was slightly off the shoulder with long sleeves that hung low, tight in the bodice, and it shimmered when I twirled in circles.

  “It’s about time you showed your excitement, my lady,” Imri scolded. Even as a compliment, she still seemed displeased with me.

  I smiled back at her. “Who wouldn’t be excited for tonight?”

  I wouldn’t be. At best, the idea of marriage terrified me. My father had assured me that Basil would be the finest of husbands, but I knew I’d be a disappointing wife. I was here because those were the orders of my king, and nothing more.

  “You will have to become more serious, now that you will be the princess of Reddengrad,” Imri said. “A princess cannot laugh away the affairs of the country.”

  “Perhaps not.” I smiled up at her. “But if I do not laugh, how else will I stay awake as the affairs are discussed?”

  It wasn’t that at all. My laughter was a disguise, a distraction from injuries I’d sustained during a fall from a castle window a few days ago. If Lord Endrick had not intervened, I’d have lost my life. But the fall had still left me with gaps in my memories, some of them more significant than I’d ever admit aloud. If anyone knew that a daughter of the Dominion was damaged, they might wonder if the Dominion itself was flawed.

  “Is there nothing in life that you take seriously?” Imri asked with a sigh.

  I tossed back my head and giggled. “What is life but a series of jokes? We either laugh with them or become the object of them.”

  We were interrupted by a messenger at the door who informed us that Lord Endrick had come to bid his congratulations and everyone else was to leave.

  Imri’s eyes flashed with something that briefly resembled alarm, which was ridiculous considering that the king honored us with his presence. My room emptied out in a panicked flurry, but I sank to my knees in humility.

  “Remain as you are,” Endrick said as he entered. An unexpected flash of fear rushed through me, and I privately scolded myself for such disloyalty. Lord Endrick had always been uncommonly kind to me. He wore the mask he often donned in public appearances, though I wished he wouldn’t have found that necessary. Perhaps the burden of ruling Antora had lined and grayed his face, but if the people saw him as he really was, they would know how much he’d sacrificed on our behalf.

  “You intend to marry tonight?” he asked.

  “Yes, my Lord. As my father arranged and as you command.”

  “That pleases me.”

  I felt his hands on my neck and realized he was fastening a necklace there. When he finished, I lifted my head and saw a silver pendant with a stone that looked like a gray pearl, with deep lines etched into it. The pendant was heavier than it appeared and sent a strange tremor through me, though it quickly passed.

  “This is my wedding gift to you,” Endrick said. “As your king, I ask you to never take this off.”

  Never was a long time, but I dipped my head in respect. “Will you be at the wedding, my Lord?”

  “I’m afraid not. I need to rest and recover my strength in the Blue Caves. It’s been a difficult week.”

  “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope the person who caused your difficulties was properly reprimanded.”

  A beat passed before he said, “They were, I assure you.”

  He kissed the top of my head, then departed, and within minutes, my ladies returned to escort me to a pre-wedding celebration here at Woodcourt. Every Dallisor within Antora was required to attend, and any Loyalist hoping to gain more power in the Dominion would squeeze in at the back of the room and be grateful for it. My stomach was already in knots.

  I waited outside the ballroom door until I heard the herald announce, “Loyalists of the Dominion, Sir Henry Dallisor wishes to thank each of you for attending this celebration of his beloved daughter’s wedding.”

  Unexpectedly, my hands began to tremble, but I tucked them into the folds of my dress, hoping no one would notice. Surely this was excitement, the anticipation of seeing my beloved what’s-his-name … Basil. Did all brides feel this way? Terror-stricken?

  Yes, that must be how they all felt.

  Regardless, I was not ready to be anyone’s bride.

  I did not want this.

  Imri touched my arm. “Don’t be nervous, my lady. You’ll do fine.”

  I smiled over at her and tossed back my head. “Of course.”

  I wasn’t sure what it meant to “do fine” in regard to one’s marriage, but that seemed like an attainable goal. I would marry Basil and “do fine.” Years and years and years at his side, doing fine.

  The herald continued, “Please join Sir Henry in welcoming his daughter, Lady Kestra Dallisor. By the end of the evening, she will be the bride of Sir Basil the Fifth, son of King Albert and heir to the throne of Reddengrad.”

  Enthusiastic applause rose from the crowd, and my ladies practically pushed me into the ballroom. Basil walked onto the dais, gave me a respectful bow, then wrapped his arms around my waist and surprised me with a kiss.

  It wasn’t our first kiss, of course, but this one was more passionate than before, as if he’d been caught up in the excitement of the crowd, or perhaps he wanted them to see the love between us. The love that was supposed to be between us. My father assured me those feelings would come over time, as it had for him and my mother. Memories of my mother were some of the most painful losses from my fall, and I missed her all the more today because of that. When we parted, Basil kept one arm around my waist and waved to the audience, drawing another cheer.