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The Heart of Betrayal
The Remnant Chronicles
By Mary E. Pearson
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Mary E. Pearson
All rights reserved.
One swift act.
I had thought that was all it would take.
A knife in the gut.
A firm twist for good measure.
But as Venda swallowed me up, as the misshapen walls and hundreds of curious faces closed in, as I heard the clatter of chains and the bridge lowering behind me, cutting me off from the rest of the world, I knew my steps had to be certain.
It was going to take many acts, not just one, every step renegotiated. Lies would have to be told. Confidences gained. Ugly lines crossed. All of it patiently woven together, and patience wasn't my strong suit.
But first, more than anything, I had to find a way to make my heart stop pummeling my chest. Find my breath. Appear calm. Fear was the blood scent for wolves. The curious inched closer, peering at me with half-open mouths that revealed rotten teeth. Were they amused or sneering?
And there was the jingle of skulls. The gathering rattle of dry bones rippled through the crowd as they jockeyed to get a better look, strings of small sun-bleached heads, femurs, and teeth waving from their belts as they pressed forward to see me. And to see Rafe.
I knew he walked shackled somewhere behind me at the end of the caravan, prisoners, both of us — and Venda didn't take prisoners. At least they never had before. We were more than a curiosity. We were the enemy they had never seen. And that was exactly what they were to me.
We walked past endless jutting turrets, layers of twisted stone walls blackened with soot and age, slithering like a filthy living beast, a city built of ruin and whim. The roar of the river faded behind me.
I'll get us both out of this.
Rafe had to be questioning his promise to me now.
We passed through another set of massive jagged gates, toothy iron bars mysteriously opening for us as if our arrival was anticipated. Our caravan grew smaller as groups of soldiers veered in different directions now that they were home. They disappeared down snaking paths shadowed by tall walls. The chievdar led what remained of us, and the wagons of booty jingled in front of me as we walked into the belly of the city. Was Rafe still somewhere behind me, or had they taken him down one of those miserable alleyways?
Kaden swung down from his horse and walked beside me. "We're almost there."
A wave of nausea hit me. Walther's dead, I reminded myself. My brother is dead. There was nothing more they could take from me. Except Rafe. I had more than myself to think about now. This changed everything. "Where is there?" I tried to ask calmly, but my words tripped out hoarse and uneven.
"We're going to the Sanctum. Our version of court. Where the leaders meet."
"And the Komizar."
"Let me do the talking, Lia. Just this once. Please, don't say a word."
I looked at Kaden. His jaw was tight, and his brows pulled low, as if his head ached. Was he nervous to greet his own leader? Afraid of what I might say? Or what the Komizar would do? Would it be considered an act of treason that he hadn't killed me as he was ordered? His blond hair hung in greasy, tired strands well past his shoulders now. His face was slick with oil and grime. It had been a long time since either of us had seen soap — but that was the least of our problems.
We approached another gate, this one a towering flat wall of iron pocked with rivets and slits. Eyes peered through them. I heard shouts from behind it, and the heavy clang of a bell. It juddered through me, each ring shivering in my teeth.
Zsu viktara. Stand strong. I forced my chin higher, almost feeling Reena's fingertips lifting it. Slowly the wall split in two and the gates rolled back, permitting our entry into an enormous open area as misshapen and bleak as the rest of the city. It was bordered on all sides by walls, towers, and the beginnings of narrow streets that disappeared into shadows. Winding crenelated walkways loomed above us, each one overtaking and melting into the next.
The chievdar moved forward, and the wagons piled in behind him. Guards in the inner court shouted their welcomes, then happily bellowed approval at the stash of swords and saddles and the glittering tangle of plunder piled high on the wagons — all that was left of my brother and his comrades. My throat tightened, for I knew that soon one of them would be wearing Walther's baldrick and carrying his sword.
My fingers curled into my palm, but I didn't even have so much as a nail left to stab my own skin. All of them were torn to the quick. I rubbed my raw fingertips, and a fierce ache shook my chest. It caught me by surprise, this small loss of my nails compared to the enormity of everything else. It was almost a mocking whisper that I had nothing, not even a fingernail, to defend myself. All I had was a secret name that seemed as useless to me right now as the title I was born with. Make it true, Lia, I told myself. But even as I said the words in my head, I felt my confidence ebbing. I had far more at stake now than I'd had just a few hours ago. Now my actions could hurt Rafe too.
Orders were given to unload the ill-gotten treasure and carry it inside, and boys younger than Eben scurried over with small two-wheeled carts to the sides of the wagon and helped the guards fill them. The chievdar and his personal guard dismounted and walked up steps that led to a long corridor. The boys followed behind, pushing the overflowing carts up a nearby ramp, their thin arms straining under the weight. Some of the booty in their loads was still stained with blood.
"That way to Sanctum Hall," Kaden said, pointing after the boys. Yes, nervous. I could hear it in his tone. If even he was afraid of the Komizar, what chance did I have?
I stopped and turned, trying to spot Rafe somewhere back in the line of soldiers still coming through the gate, but all I could see was Malich leading his horse, following close behind us. He grinned, his face still bearing the slash marks from my attack. "Welcome to Venda, Princess," he jeered. "I promise you, things will be very different now."
Kaden pulled me around, keeping me close to his side. "Stay near," he whispered. "For your own good."
Malich laughed, reveling in his threat, but for once, I knew what he said was true. Everything was different now. More than Malich could even guess.CHAPTER 2
Sanctum Hall was little more than a dismal tavern, albeit a cavernous one. Four of Berdi's taverns could have fit within its walls. It smelled of spilled ale, damp straw, and overindulgence. Columns lined the four sides, and it was lit with torches and lanterns. The high ceiling was covered in soot, and an enormous rough wooden table sat heavy and abused in the center. Pewter tankards rested on the table or swung from meaty fists.
Kaden and I hung back in the shadowed walkway behind the columns, but the leaders greeted the chievdar and his personal guard with boisterous shouts and slapping of backs. Tankards were offered and raised to the returning soldiers with calls to bring more ale. I saw Eben, shorter than some of the serving boys, lifting a pewter cup to his lips, a returning soldier the same as the rest. Kaden pushed me slightly behind him in a protective manner, but I still scanned the room, trying to spot the Komizar, trying to be ready, prepared for what was to come. Several of the men were huge, like Griz — some even bigger — and I wondered what kind of creatures, both human and beast, this strange land produced. I kept my eyes on one of them. He snarled every word, and the scurrying boys ran a respectful wide distance around him. I thought that he had to be the Komizar, but I saw Kaden's eyes scouring the room too, and they passed over the burly brute.
"These are the Legion of Governors," he said, as if he had read my mind. "They rule the provinces."
Venda had provinces? And a hierarchy too, beyond assassins, marauders, and an iron-fisted Komizar? The governors were distinguished from the servants and soldiers by black fur epaulets on their shoulders. The fur was crowned with a bronze clasp shaped like the bared teeth of an animal. It made their physiques appear twice as wide and formidable.
The ruckus rose to a deafening roar, echoing off the stone walls and bare floors. There was only a pile of straw in one corner of the room to absorb any noise. The boys parked the carts of booty along one row of pillars, and the governors perused the haul, lifting swords, testing weights, and rubbing forearms on leather breastplates to polish away dried blood. They examined the goods as if they were at a marketplace. I saw one of them pick up a sword inlaid with red jasper on the hilt. Walther's sword. My foot automatically moved forward, but I caught myself and forced it back into place. Not yet.
"Wait here," Kaden whispered and stepped out of the shadows. I inched closer to a pillar, trying to get my bearings. I saw three dark hallways that led into Sanctum Hall in addition to the one we had entered through. Where did they go, and were they guarded like the one behind me? And most important, did any of them lead to Rafe?
"Where's the Komizar?" Kaden asked in Vendan, speaking to no one in particular, his voice barely cutting through the din.
One governor turned, and then another. The room grew suddenly quiet. "The Assassin is here," said an anonymous voice somewhere at the other end.
There was an uncomfortable pause and then one of the shorter governors, a stout man with multiple red braids that fell past his shoulders, barreled forward and threw his arms around Kaden, welcoming him home. The noise resumed but at a noticeably lower level, and I wondered at the effect an Assassin's presence had on them. It reminded me of Malich and how he had reacted to Kaden on the long trek across the Cam Lanteux. He'd had blood in his eye and was equally matched, but he'd still backed down when Kaden stood his ground.
"The Komizar's been called," the governor told Kaden. "That is, if he comes. He's occupied with —"
"A visitor," Kaden finished.
The governor laughed. "That she is. The kind of visitor I'd like to have."
More governors walked over, and one with a long crooked nose shoved a tankard in Kaden's hand. He welcomed him home and berated him for being gone for so long on holiday. Another governor chided him, saying he was away from Venda more than he was here.
"I go where the Komizar sends me," Kaden answered.
One of the other governors, as big as a bull and with a chest just as wide, lifted his drink in a toast. "As do we all," he replied and threw back his head, taking a long careless swig. Ale sloshed out the sides of his mug and dripped down his beard to the floor. Even this taurine giant hopped when the Komizar snapped his fingers, and he wasn't afraid to admit it.
Though they spoke only in Vendan, I was able to understand nearly everything they said. I knew far more than just the choice words of Venda. Weeks of immersion in their language across the Cam Lanteux had cured my ignorance.
As Kaden answered their questions about his journey, my gaze became fixed on another governor pulling a finely tooled baldrick from the cart and trying to force it around his generous gut. I felt dizzy, sick, and then rage bubbled up through my veins. I closed my eyes. Not yet. Don't get yourself killed in the first ten minutes. That can come later.
I took a deep breath, and when I opened my eyes again, I spotted a face in the shadows. Someone on the other side of the hall was watching me. I couldn't look away. Only a slash of light illuminated his face. His dark eyes were expressionless, but at the same time compelling, fixed like a wolf stalking prey, in no hurry to spring, confident. He casually leaned against a pillar, a younger man than the governors, smooth-faced except for a precise line of beard at his chin and a thin, carefully clipped mustache. His dark hair was unkempt, locks curling just above his shoulders. He didn't wear the furred epaulets of a governor on his shoulders, nor the leather vestments of a soldier, only simple tan trousers and a loose white shirt, and he was certainly in no hurry to attend to anyone, so he wasn't a servant either. His eyes moved past me as if bored, and he took in the rest of the scene, governors pawing through carts and swilling ale. And then Kaden. I saw him watching Kaden.
Heat rushed through my stomach.
He stepped out past the pillar into the middle of the room, and with his first steps, I knew. This was the Komizar.
"Welcome home, comrades!" he called out. The room was instantly silent. Everyone turned toward the voice, including Kaden. The Komizar walked slowly across the expanse and anyone in his path moved back. I stepped out from the shadows to stand by Kaden's side, and a low rumble ran through the room.
The Komizar stopped a few feet from us, ignoring me and staring at Kaden, then finally came forward to embrace him with a genuine welcome.
When he released Kaden and took a step back, he looked at me with a cool, blank gaze. I couldn't quite believe that this was the Komizar. His face was smooth and unwrinkled, a man just a few years older than Walther, more like an older brother to Kaden than a fearsome leader. He wasn't exactly the formidable Dragon of the Song of Venda — the one who drank blood and stole dreams. His stature was only average, nothing daunting about him at all except for his unwavering stare.
"What's this?" he asked in Morrighese almost as flawless as Kaden's, nodding his head toward me. A game player. He knew exactly who I was and wanted to be sure I understood every word.
"Princess Arabella, First Daughter of the House of Morrighan," Kaden answered.
Another restrained hush ran through the room. The Komizar chuckled. "Her? A princess?"
He slowly circled around me, viewing my rags and filth as if in disbelief. He paused at my side, where the fabric was torn from my shoulder and the kavah was exposed. He uttered a quiet hmm as if mildly amused, then ran the back of his finger down the length of my arm. My skin crawled, but I lifted my chin, as if he were merely an annoying fly buzzing about the room. He completed his circle until he faced me again. He grunted. "Not very impressive, is she? But then, most royals aren't. About as entrancing as a bowl of week-old mush."
Only a month ago, I would have jumped at the baited remark, tearing him to shreds with a few hot words, but now I wanted to do far more than insult him. I returned his gaze with one of my own, matching his empty expression blink for blink. He rubbed the back of his hand along the line of his thin, carefully sculpted beard, studying me.
"It's been a long journey," Kaden explained. "A hard one for her."
The Komizar raised his brows, feigning surprise. "It needn't have been," he said. He raised his voice so the whole hall would be sure to hear, though his words were still directed at Kaden. "I seem to remember I ordered you to slice her throat, not bring her back as a pet."
Tension sparked in the air. No one lifted a tankard to their lips. No one moved. Perhaps they waited for the Komizar to walk over to the carts, draw a sword, and send my head rolling down the middle of the room, which certainly in their eyes was his right. Kaden had defied him.
But there was something between Kaden and the Komizar, something I still didn't quite understand. A hold of some sort.
"She has the gift," Kaden explained. "I thought she'd be more useful to Venda alive than dead."
At the mention of the word gift, I saw glances exchanged among the servants and governors, but still, no one said a word. The Komizar smiled, at once chilling and magnetic. My neck prickled. This was a man who knew how to control a room with the lightest touch. He was showing his hand. Once I knew his strengths, I might discover his weaknesses too. Everyone had them. Even the feared Komizar.
"The gift!" He laughed and turned to everyone else, expecting them to laugh in kind. They did.
He looked back to me, the smile gone, then reached out and took my hand in his. He examined my injuries, his thumb gently skimming the back of my hand. "Does she have a tongue?"
This time it was Malich who laughed, stepping over to the table in the center of the room and slamming down his mug. "Like a cackling hyena. And her bite is just as nasty." The chievdar spoke up, concurring. Murmurs rose from the soldiers.
"And yet," the Komizar said, turning back to me, "she remains silent."
"Lia," Kaden whispered, nudging me with his arm, "you can speak."
I looked at Kaden. He thought I didn't know that? Did he really think it was his warning that had silenced me? I had been silenced far too many times by those who exerted power over me. Not here. My voice would be heard, but I'd speak when it served my purposes. I betrayed neither word nor expression. The Komizar and his governors were no different from the throngs I had passed on my way here. They were curious. A real princess of Morrighan. I was on display. The Komizar wanted me to perform before him and his Legion of Governors. Did they expect jewels to spill from my mouth? More likely, whatever I said would find ridicule, just as my appearance already had. Or the back of his hand. There were only two things a man in the Komizar's position expected, defiance or groveling, and I was certain that neither would improve my lot.
Excerpted from The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson. Copyright © 2015 Mary E. Pearson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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