Avery still sat outside the Captain’s door. She stood when she saw me trudging to my doom.
“You’re going to tell him, aren’t you?” She put up both her hands, as if that might make a difference. “Don’t. I’ve been thinking it over, and I think it is Kivalya’s blood. Think about it: he liked her, she was pretty, she liked him, he married her, had her picture drawn, and then she wised up and ran away. Or she actually did get kidnapped, who knows?”
I glanced around the empty hallway. “Avery…Isn’t that just wishful thinking?”
“No. Listen, Kivalya was still illegally young. That is, he still needed Mother’s permission. But in what world would she permit Kivalya to marry that monster? Absolutely not. He already had the papers to marry ‘Avery’. All he had to do was convince Kivalya, and the priest, that Kivalya could be Avery.”
“You think? Kiva would never…”
“You will be queen, you will be covered in jewels and riches, surrounded by servants and adorers, lavished with—”
I found myself nodding. “That would work on Kiva. At least, long enough for the ceremony.”
“See? No need to go risking your neck. Not this time.”
“If she is innocent, the Captain will protect her. If she is not, finding her could still prevent treason.” She moved away from the door.
We entered together. The Captain was at his desk, and I knew I was unlikely to find the courage again. I sat down and concentrated on breathing evenly, as Sebastien had taught. “Captain…”
He did not look up from his documents. It was not unusual, and allowed me to gather my thoughts. “About the Count and his runaway bride…”
At least I could explain that there was a chance that ‘Avery’ was not such a runaway. It was betrayal to Kiva, but preventing her from attempting to usurp the throne could save her life.
“I understand better now, your reaction,” he said, glancing up at me. “You knew, and wanted to protect your sister. You spent your entire lives hiding from your identities. But none of you would have needed to hide if you had pledged your loyalty in the beginning. There was no reason for such secrecy. If you had but told me, I could have helped.”
He made it sound so simple, it was confusing. Had there really been no need for it? Even though Father had registered us, he had never mentioned bringing any of us anywhere near Saliz. There must have been a reason for it, surely?
What about the assassins?
It was not only once or twice that they came, followed Father home or found us on their own. Several times we had to move to a new town and start our lives over. Mother had drilled into us to be self-reliant and distrusting of strangers.
“Whether or not it was necessary—”
I had not heard the door open behind me. The Captain casually lifted me up out of the chair and moved me to the side, motioning for someone beyond the door to sit in my chair. “Sit here, Avery.” He spoke softly, gently.
A girl sat down. Her hair was messy and her clothes unkempt. Who? Was that me? Avery?
Avery appeared next to me. “Who?”
The disheveled girl looked up at the Captain, her face somewhere between wild and breathtaking.
“Kivalya.” Avery breathed, reaching out to our sister.
Not me, not Avery. Kiva.
What had happened to her?
I pressed my back against the wall.
The Captain’s gaze on her was kind, far kinder than he had ever looked at me. He would try to help her. Maybe more than he had helped me.
I could not help but feel like something had gone terribly wrong. How could she be here? She was the sweet, pretty daughter, beloved by all. What had happened that she was here?
Why had I not considered what the Count might do to my family? To Kiva?
She did not deserve this. was she being charged for my crimes?
I needed to say something. To confess. To apologize.
Kiva looked up, eyes tearful.
“That conniving minx.”
The dirt was carefully smudged, highlighting her elegant cheekbones and bringing out the flecks of green in her eyes. Her outfit was form-fitting, muddy in places that only enhanced her natural beauty while creating a look of helplessness. Even her hair was not truly dirty, only messy, and it was expertly arranged to look beautifully disordered.
I took a sideways step, further away from the desk, away from her. How was it she could show up here in such a state and outshine even the contessa?
“Amazing.” Avery shook her head, disgusted.
She needed no Charm, she was just Kiva.
The Captain took no notice of us with Kivalya there. He dismissed the guards, and they pulled the door shut behind them. Kiva flinched, just the right amount, then looked up at the Captain, eyes full of womanly tears.
I could not help a small gasp of disbelief, and Avery pretended to throw up all over the floor. “I was right. She came for the crown.”
“Do not be afraid. You are safe here.”
“I was so scared!” she covered her face, “I thought—” and half-collapsed into the Captain, demonstrating that her ability to cry on command was as strong as ever.
“Did she ever!” Avery shook her head at Kiva. “Why, were the count’s jewels not enough?” She turned to me. “I cannot watch this. Are you going to watch this?”
I wanted to give her the benefit of my trust. She was so naturally beautiful that she was pretty even in the worst of times. My initial fear at seeing her might not have been wrong. The Count had wanted her, not me. The picture had been of her as well.
But he had gotten me instead, and everyone had seen me, and the papers had been signed in blood. There was no reason to involve Kiva.
That did not mean he had not. And he had had the portrait made of her. The agreement papers had my blood, but the marriage certificate might have been hers.
I tried to listen.
“You missed her crying and being afraid. She has not said anything of substance.”
“Do not distress yourself. You need not explain now if you are not ready.” Eliot Winter offered Kiva a handkerchief as he supported her.
“No, I can do this,” she smiled at him, as though mustering courage, her elegant hand squeezing his arm. Her nails were clean.
“I’m going to be sick. Again.”
I almost wanted her to have been truly kidnapped and tortured.
No, that was a lie. I was irritated that my real problems were playing second string to her beauty and poise.
“It all began three years ago…” Kiva had always had a bit of the bard in her.
“I went with Mother to the marketplace, in Essel. She went every moon, but she did not often take me with her. I was thrilled to be going with. It was so boring in Willow Falls.” Kivalya smiled at the memory, and her smile faded perfectly. “I didn’t know. I couldn’t have known.” She stopped to let out a few tears before collecting herself again with a deep breath. “The Marketplace was bustling with life and color. I helped Mother with our produce and admired all the fine people passing through the square.”
“Hah! More like flirted with every man you saw, you—”
I covered Avery’s mouth to listen.
“One man in particular stood out. His style was elegant, and he rode a great stallion with a refined air. He smiled and charmed everyone as he passed, but I did not like the look of him.”
Avery bit my hand, leaving a golden glow. “Ow!”
“He stopped at Mother’s stall, but he was not looking at the vegetables.” Kiva’s breath hitched, and she required encouraging words from the Captain before she was able to continue. “He asked my name, asked how old I was. Said I was very pretty.”
I wondered if the Captain could feel it, the slight difference in the story-telling. This part was true. The Count himself had taunted me with the story. Though, in his version, she had simpered at him. It meant nothing, coming from the Count. But it was likely true of her.
“He leapt off his horse and bought me flowers from another vendor. Then he left. I thought that was the last I would see of him.”
The Count had claimed he had told her that she would be seeing much more of him, and that she had blushed. I was inclined to believe his version. It sounded more like him, and like her.
Kiva put her hands in her face and trembled.
“It would be embarrassing, to have to tell it like that.”
“Take your time,” the Captain’s deep voice was soft and kind.
She took a deep breath. “He came to my house. I know not how he found it.”
He had had her followed home.
“It had been a phase, maybe two. I almost didn’t know who he was.”
“Untrue. She had smiled brightly to see him and flirted outrageously.”
The Cherries had seen it. They loved a good romance. And a bad romance. Any romance.
“He came regularly for a few moons, and then—” she stopped.
“And then married my little sister, like a creep. My illegally young sister.”
“He asked Mother for my hand. She was furious. He was twice my age, and I was but fifteen! Undaunted, he kept coming.”
That was true.
I looked at Avery, and her confusion mirrored my own. Kiva had been well past seventeen when the Count had started his attentions towards her.
Unless it had started before?
“We were never around. It’s possible…”
The Cherry trees were not specific about the dates. I had just assumed that it had been recent, when they told me.
“Slowly I was swayed to trust him. He seemed so gentlemanly, then. And one day, Mother stopped fighting it. I was just turned sixteen.”
“Is she pretending to be you? Or did this really happen?”
It made no sense. None of it made any sense.
“We married in early spring, under the flowering cherry trees. Everything was so pretty and magical, the blossoms drifting around me like snowdrops.”
“She did not just say that. Tell me she did not just describe THAT day as magical.”
“That’s true-it was such an uncommonly warm year. The flowers kept falling and falling, getting in my hair and my dress and my eyes…” I whispered softly. Kiva was still talking, describing a much happier event.
“He gave me the most beautiful gowns and jewels and lavished such sweet attention on me. He was the perfect groom. I had misgivings, but—I was swept off my feet by the romance of the moment. At first everything was so new and overwhelming that I did not notice the little things. I did not realize—” she started crying again.
“Did she always speak so…nobly?”
I hugged myself and stared into nothing, dry-eyed and sightless. How could her account of it be so accurate? How was it possible? Surely she was not telling my story, as someone who had watched it happen? It had to be a coincidence. Or…
“We fought about something. I do not even remember what it was. He was so angry that he almost hit me, but then he apologized so sweetly.”
The apology I could believe, but for all his faults the Count had never been a violent man. Not physically, anyway. Not to me.
Avery applauded. “She tells it so believably.”
“Another time, he was angry because my sister had insulted him. He locked me in the cellar.”
That was probably true—except that it was not. Unless he had had her locked up before I left, as a precaution I had not known about?
“He came early in the morning to release me, full of apologies. But I realized I had to escape.” She started to tear up again. “I tried to go back—back to my family, but I was caught.”
Also possibly true. Why had she started with the true timeline, then switched to this one? Or had..Had she not known, that he had married me a year later? Or had he married her after I left?
“A second time, I made it to where my sister trained as a woodcrafter. I tried to talk to her, but I couldn’t get the words out. She never listened to me. I tried to tell her, but even when his guards came to drag me back, she didn’t listen.”
I stared, numb with shock. Could it be true?
“She did visit occasionally, but I think we would have remembered guards.” Avery shook my shoulder. “Focus! Don’t let her poison you against your real memories.”
Mother had known, but none of them had been at the wedding. It suddenly did not seem so unbelievable, that Mother would not have admitted giving her fifteen year old child to a 35 year old man. Could he have romanced her on the side, while keeping me locked in his house? Every time I had fought, had he done something to punish her?
“You’re not trusting her, right now? With those glistening tears and glowing eyes? No one looks that pretty when they really cry. Besides, her dates and names are all mixed up. I can’t even follow how old she’s supposed to be right now.”
“But why?” I could not help whispering.
“Because she can?” Avery was equally puzzled.
“But one day in the market I saw some woodcrafters. My sister was a woodcrafter, I thought I could get word to her. She—I tried to ask her for help and she—” Then she burst into tears and could not be prevailed upon for several minutes.
“I think I might kill her.”
When she did continue, she skipped ahead and breezed through her story as though it were too painful to tell. “I finally escaped with the help of a guard. I ran south. I thought—Saliz would be safe. I could find—shelter, a new life. I used all my wits, did everything I could to get here.” She looked at the Captain, hopeful. “Am I safe? Is it—is this nightmare over?”
“After such a performance, that was a weak ending.”
But her tears were strong enough, and her pretty, pleading face was enchanting. The Captain reassured her, and when she was calm and ready, he called the guard back in.
Kiva did not look at me as the guard supported her out. That was nothing new. She might have seen me and she might not have.
“She saw. There’s no way she didn’t see. Why else would she paint you with a villain's brush?”
I tried to ignore my pounding headache and concentrated. I would have been with Master Thorne in early spring. I only went home during the harvest. I was never allowed to the market, and Kiva visited…once? Twice? She spoke more to Jaiden than to me, except to mock my work.
“You knew. You knew all along that the Count’s bride was your little sister. It must have happened before you left town.” He laughed, a horrifying, hollow, cold sound. “It was written all over your face when you first looked at the Count’s letter. I only failed to read it properly.”
I was fourteen in the spring of Kiva’s sixteenth year. Had she been at home at new years?
“We didn’t go that year. The harvest was small, and Mother said not to bother.”
“Did you worry that your cowardice would be revealed if I found her?”
I almost laughed, eyes watering. “I remember now. It snowed on my birthday. It snowed well into summer, that year. Her sixteenth year.” I closed my eyes and willed the tears to not fall.
“How can he not see through her lies? He’s normally so logical! Let me talk to him. I can fix this.”
I pushed Avery away lightly.
“How could you? Your own flesh and blood was in danger, and you turned a blind eye.” The Captain’s expression was painful to see. “Get out of my sight.”
I nodded slowly and willed my legs to move normally as I walked out the open door.