The Deceiver’s Heart – Jennifer A. Nielsen

Barely daring to breathe, I crept forward, hoping Lord Endrick wouldn’t be aware of my presence until I was closer. He had summoned me here, so there was no chance of surprising him, but I didn’t need him watching my every move as I trekked across the great hall toward the Scarlet Throne. The throne itself was a grand display of rubies and garnets, occupied for the past thousand years by whichever Antoran family was currently in power. But never by an outsider. Never by anyone as evil as Lord Endrick. Lord Endrick was a head taller than the average Antoran and thick in his build. Today he wore the black uniform of Dominion officers, highly decorated with medals he had never earned, and with green accents signifying his rank as king, a position he had seized from the Dallisor family. In public, he wore a mask to disguise his true nature, but he rarely wore it in his palace. I hated having to look upon him. Every murder he had committed against his own people had grayed his flesh and deepened the lines of his skin until he now resembled a monster more than a person. Such thoughts made it easier to do what I had to do, but I continued walking forward. My heart ached just to think of what was about to happen. Endrick sat in close conference with Sir Henry, his chief enforcer, confidant, and the man who had pretended to be my father for all of my sixteen years. Even now, he didn’t know that I knew the truth, nor could I tell him until this was over. If I was lucky, that would be within the next few minutes.

The Olden Blade was in its usual spot, tucked in a garter around my right thigh. But I’d deliberately worn a skirt with only a single sash around the waist today, so it wouldn’t be hard to get to the weapon when I needed it. My pulse was racing and my body was much too tense. I needed to slow down, to breathe. I needed to keep thinking. “Kestra, my daughter, you are late.” Sir Henry never missed an opportunity to scold me, though I figured most of his disapproval would come after I killed Lord Endrick. If I could do it. I had to do it. I gave the appropriate bow to the throne, subtly checking with my hand that the Olden Blade’s handle was where I expected, and it was.

Good. “Forgive my delay.” My tone was deliberately obstinate. Foolishly inciteful. “I’d rather not have come at all.” “Kestra!” Lord Endrick held up his hand for silence, then gestured for me to rise, which I did. “You’ve shown an unusual streak of defiance since returning from the Lava Fields,” he said. I tilted my head. “You must know that defiance is not unusual for me. Wasn’t that the reason I was sent to the Lava Fields in the first place?” “In hopes it would tame you, not encourage you,” Sir Henry said.

“We—” He stopped mid-sentence and immediately dipped his head, feeling the burn from Endrick’s scathing glare, a reminder that the king did not appreciate being interrupted. I rather enjoyed that. Never in my life had I seen Sir Henry shrink to anyone. Then Lord Endrick continued, “Some defiance can be tolerated in the young. It’s natural to push against one’s elders. But it ends here, Miss Dallisor. Before your disappearance several days ago, a wedding was planned for you. Sir Basil has expressed his willingness to continue with the wedding. I only need your promise that when you stand before the people, you will accept him.” I straightened my spine, hoping it would give me courage.

“I will not.” Lord Endrick thrust out his hand, and with it came a force that hit me squarely in the chest, knocking the breath from my lungs and sending me sprawling backward. That had hurt far more than I’d expected, but it had to happen. I needed to draw Lord Endrick nearer to me, away from Sir Henry. And I needed to be in a position to quietly reach beneath my skirts. “Get up, girl!” Sir Henry called to me. I wasn’t sure if his order was meant to demand I show Endrick more respect, or to warn of what Endrick would do next if I didn’t get up. Either way, I couldn’t obey him, not yet. “If I get up, he’ll do that again!” Endrick’s tone darkened. “And if you don’t, things will get worse until you agree to the marriage.

” “As far as I can tell, marriage itself is far worse than anything you can do to me.” Which may have sounded flippant, except in this case it was true. Endrick had already forced Basil to agree to kill me on our wedding night, something Basil himself had confirmed in our private conversations over the past few days. But Lord Endrick didn’t take kindly to my words. He stood, threw his cloak off his shoulders, and marched down the stairs from the Scarlet Throne. “On your knees, girl.” By then, I’d already worked the Olden Blade free of the garter. It was now in my hand, with part of my skirt wrapped around the blade to hide it. I rolled to my knees. This was it, the moment I would kill him.

The timing had to be perfect. He could not see it, could not suspect, until the blade was piercing his gut. Lord Endrick held out his right hand, and a servant ran forward with a grip glove, fastening it to the king’s palm. The grip glove would intensify anything that Endrick’s magic could already do. I’d experienced a lesser version of his punishments before, and it was awful. Sir Henry had remained in his seat, which he rarely did. He was ordinarily the punisher, and if not, he usually relished the pleasure of being up close when Endrick did the job instead. But maybe somewhere, deep in his miserable, shriveled heart, he had tender feelings for me. Either that, or he didn’t want to bother himself with walking down the steps, only to climb them a minute or two later. That was probably it.

I lowered my head and redoubled my grip on the Olden Blade. Endrick’s footsteps were behind me and coming closer. It felt like he was deliberately walking slowly, drawing out the torture. Maybe he was. Finally, I sensed his presence behind me, like a corporeal shadow, like he was death itself. He raised his hand to part my hair, seeking a solid grip on my neck, but as he did, I leapt to my feet, swinging around with the blade and leaving a deep cut in his side. “No!” Now Sir Henry was rushing down the steps, his sword already out. I swung back in the opposite direction, this time with a much better aim. I started to bring the blade down on Endrick’s chest, but he grabbed my arm, using the grip glove to send a wave of pain through me. Had he not been injured, that pulse of magic probably would have stopped my heart.

I fell to the ground, gasping with breath. Endrick stood over me, clutching his wound and shouting, “A Dallisor child is the Infidante? Where did you find that blade?” I couldn’t speak, couldn’t form words, but I stumbled to my feet, trying to put any distance between us. Sir Henry tried to dart forward, but Endrick raised a hand, motioning him back. “It doesn’t matter where I found it,” I said. “It’s mine, and I will kill you with it.” “You won’t,” Endrick said. “But if you give it to me now, I may let you live.” Only a fool would believe such lies. I raised the blade again, ready to thrust it at him if he took another step closer to me. Hoping he would, and that I would do better this time.

“Come and get it,” I said. This time, when Lord Endrick shot magic at me, I instinctively put the blade forward and blocked it, something I hadn’t known was possible. It reflected back, knocking him off his feet, the mighty Lord of the Dominion reduced to sprawling backward across the marble floor. He was mortal after all, I understood that now. I started toward him, but he immediately sat up and hit me with a force so powerful it hurled me to the windows at the far end of the throne room. As black dots swarmed in my vision, I used the blade to smash the glass, and then I rolled backward over the edge. It was a long fall into a frost-covered morning, and the hardened tree limbs below would have killed me, except this was the escape I’d already planned to use if anything went wrong. I landed on a web of rope in the upper branches, planted there last night by Basil and me. While the fall didn’t kill me, Lord Endrick nearly had, and I was struggling to remain conscious. I didn’t have long.

Above me, orders were being shouted to the Ironhearts to bring me in alive. I rolled down the webbing to the ground, unable to get a grip on the rungs. Basil breathed out my name and darted from a hiding place to break my fall. Certain that we’d be celebrating at this point, I’d told him not to come. How relieved I was to see him now. Dizzy, and with the world at a distinct angle, I wrapped the Olden Blade in the sash at my waist and pushed it into his hands. “Take this.” He did, but said, “Let me help you first!” “I can’t get away in time, but you can protect the blade. If I don’t survive, it must go to the Coracks. Now go and hide it somewhere no one will suspect, not even me.

” Especially not me. I wasn’t awake long enough to know if he successfully escaped. All I knew was that I didn’t. Ironhearts were shouting my name, surrounding me. My eyes closed and, I feared, might never open again. I had failed. Kestra!” My eyes fluttered open to the sound of someone calling my name. I recognized the voice but couldn’t understand it. “Where am I?” “You’re with your father.” “Darrow?” Immediately, I knew that was the wrong thing to say.

I opened my eyes to see Sir Henry seated in front of me, his mouth pressed into a tight line. “Your former servant, Darrow, received a death worthy of his crimes against the Dominion.” Henry’s flat, apathetic tone could only come from a man who had ceased to feel for any of the hundreds of people he’d sent to their deaths. “It will be an eternal punishment.” “Eternal punishment?” That was the fate of those who had been killed in All Spirits Forest during the war. To wander forever in a half-life without rest. I shook my head. “Darrow was killed inside a building during a Dominion attack. I saw it happen.” Henry smiled, and my stomach turned.

“We captured him before that explosion and brought him to this very room, where he unwisely refused to discuss your training in the Lava Fields. He gave Lord Endrick no choice but to send him to All Spirits Forest to join the other … prisoners there.” Tears filled my eyes, but Henry rested his hand on my arm. “You miss your true father, how touching. Once we’re finished, I’m sure you’ll have the privilege of joining him.” I suspected that would happen soon. My arms and legs were attached with binding cords to the chair in which I was seated. Other than our two chairs, the only furniture in this small dark room was a table, bare except for a single clearstone, our sole source of light. I began trembling. This room had pulled confessions from the lips of innocent men and women, and had melted the wills of the strongest among them.

Whatever might happen to me in here would be awful, but the true punishment would come afterward. The eternal punishment. The door behind me opened and an icy shudder tore through me. I knew who had come. “Is the girl ready?” Endrick asked. Without a second look at me, Henry immediately vacated his seat for his king, though the gesture was ignored. Instead, Endrick’s deeply lined face came into my field of vision. I recoiled from it, terrified of whatever might happen to me next, and I nearly became sick when he clutched my jaw, turning my face from one side to the other. “You had a terrible accident,” Lord Endrick said. “You fell through a castle window.

” That wasn’t an accident. That was my escape after I’d failed to kill him, and we both knew it. My eyes flicked to where I had cut him with the Olden Blade, and I was disappointed not to see bandages. Then he had the power to heal himself too. The next Infidante ought to know that. I wished I had known that. He pushed back the hair on my forehead tenderly, as if he had any feelings for me warmer than loathing. I noticed a grip glove on that hand, and my panic deepened. I tried to pull away, but the cords had no mercy. “How were you able to handle the Olden Blade?” he asked.

“A Dallisor should not have been able to touch it.” I pressed my lips together, determined to say nothing because if I did, I might tell him everything, simply out of fear. When it was obvious I wouldn’t respond, Sir Henry said, “She is adopted, my Lord. Perhaps there is Halderian blood in her.” I was half Halderian, to be exact. And half Endrean. With the same blood as Lord Endrick, though I had no magic of my own. “Where is the Olden Blade?” His tone remained so calm that it unnerved me. My legs were already beginning to shake. All I could do was mumble, “I don’t know.

” Endrick looked at Sir Henry, who said, “If she were lying, I’d know.” Endrick’s expression toward me became one almost of admiration. “You’ve hidden it even from yourself, very wise. Tell me, child, who has the secret?” A tear escaped me, and though I had every possible lie in my head, when the words came out, they were the perfect truth. “It will go to the Coracks.” “How appropriate, since you helped that Corack boy get into Woodcourt to find it. What is his name?” I faced forward again, determined not to reveal Simon’s name, nor Trina’s, the other Corack who’d come with me into Woodcourt. They didn’t appear to know about her. “We know the Coracks forced you to betray us,” Endrick continued. “Now we’re returning the favor.

” I shook my head. “You’ll have to kill me first.” Endrick smiled, hearing the quiver in my voice. “I’d rather not. You’re such an insignificant threat to me as Infidante, I’d rather keep you alive.” “If I’m insignificant, then I have no power to stop the Coracks.” “You may not, but I do. Understand, my dear, that from this moment forward, there will be no choice, no path in which you have any chance to win.” The grip glove slid downward, leaving an icy trail down my neck, and stopped directly over my heart. “You’re afraid.

But you shouldn’t be, for the worst of your fate has already happened.” My heart seemed to tighten inside my chest, constricting, restricting my breaths. “What do you mean?” “What do you know about the Ironhearts?” My breaths came sharper. “You didn’t.” “Some of my servants cannot be trusted, so I must have ways of ensuring their obedience.” He pressed in on my chest and the constriction tightened, making it nearly impossible to breathe. “I take a piece of their heart for myself. It allows me to sense disloyalty and, if necessary, I will then crush the traitor’s heart.” He was doing it now, putting a squeeze on my heart that was making the details of this room fade around me. Pain shot through my limbs, making the darkness spin.

Through harsh breaths, I asked, “Why not kill me here?” “You’re returning to the Coracks, my dear. This time in my service.” Finally, he released my heart, and tears streamed down my cheeks as I struggled to stay conscious. “I don’t know how to find them.” “But they will find you. To make it easy, I’ve even rescheduled your wedding for two days from now and allowed that fool Basil to sneak a messenger out of Highwyn to them. They’ll bring you into their fold like a lamb, but you’ll be my wolf.” “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?

.

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