Kushiel's Justice (Page 15)

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She kissed me, soft and tender; a shower of petals falling. It washed away the last traces of shame, at least for a moment. She cupped my face and regarded me with a deep gaze worthy of Phèdre, then kissed me lightly on the lips. “We'll see.”

No one else had ever reacted that way, with anything less than unalleviated horror and sympathy; not even knowing a tenth of what had befallen me. Until Sidonie did, I hadn't known I'd wanted someone to. Even a year ago, I don't think I would have. But I wasn't the same Imriel who had shorn his own hair in a fit of self-loathing after Mavros took me to Valerian House. In Tiberium, Asclepius' priest had told me to bear my scars with pride. I was learning.

And wrong and doomed though this affair might be, it helped.

I asked Sidonie about it the next time we were together, lying in the afterglow of lovemaking. “All right, then. Tell me. What sort of wonderful, horrible things did you have in mind?”

She smiled, her cheek pillowed on one arm. “Oh, nothing too horrible.”

I traced the neat, sleek curve of her back, imagining the kiss of a flogger, welts arising on her tender skin. “Why?”

“I'm curious,” she said simply. “I want to.”

“You're too young.” I smacked her nearest buttock lightly.

Sidonie wrinkled her nose in an expression so like her sister's that it did nothing to belie my observation. “You sound like Amarante when she's being instructive.” Her voice took on a tone of unearthly calm. “'Sidonie, if you rush too swiftly through all the pleasures Naamah's arts offer, they will lose their savor.'“

I laughed. “Oh, instructive, is it?”

“Well, not as much, now.” She smiled again. “It was.”

I ran a lock of her hair through my fingers. It glinted in the light, subtle differences in the hues of gold. “Tell me more about these instructive parts.”

“Give me your hand.” Sidonie rolled onto her back. I propped myself on my left arm and she took my right hand, guiding my forefinger to her warm, moist cleft and placing the tip of it on her still-swollen bud. ” 'First and foremost, it is important to understand your own pleasure,'” she said in the same imperturbable tone. She rubbed my fingertip against her bud, and moisture gathered and glistened there. ” 'Though the pinnacle of pleasure may be gained by many methods, for a woman, its seeds lie always in Naamah's Pearl. This is the ultimate source of your pleasure. That, you must never forget. You see, though I touch you with but the merest tip of one finger, I bring you to—'” Her voice broke and her hand tightened on mine, pressing hard. ” 'Ah! There, yes, there.'“

“No!” I was laughing almost too hard to let her finish. “So didactic? Surely not!”

“Not exactly,” Sidonie admitted breathlessly. “Nearly, though.”

I felt a twinge of guilt. “You shouldn't make mock of it. At least not in her own bed.”

“I'm not mocking.” She sat up, shaking out her hair. “Well, only a little. Only in love. After all, it was very instructive. At least in the beginning. I learn quickly.” She smiled at me. “And anyway, Amarante doesn't sleep here very often.”

“Oh, I see.” I caught another lock of her hair, winding it around fingers damp with her pleasure. “The pupil has become an ardent scholar.”

“Yes.” Sidonie leaned down to kiss me, the tips of her breasts brushing my chest.

No apology; no shame. She was half-Cruithne, but wholly D'Angeline in matters of desire. And strangely, there was no jealousy in me, only fondness. I gazed up at her and understood for the first time, truly understood, the gifts of Blessed Elua and his Companions. Even the heir to the throne, long schooled in the arts of discipline and self-control, was free to lay those concerns aside in the bedchamber. Even damaged goods like me could be healed here. It was a sacred place in which we were free to be whoever, whatever we wished. Such was the grace of the gods we worshipped.

The dark mirror and the bright alike; both reflected our true selves.

“What are you thinking, Imriel?” she asked.

“A great many things,” I said slowly. “Not the least of which is that I love you.”

It was a violation of our unspoken pact, but Sidonie said nothing, only made another soft sound deep in her throat. She shook her head in impatient despair and kissed me again, over and over. I kissed her back, drowning in gold, her sun-shot hair falling around my face, hearing the echo of the Asclepian priest's words in my memory.

Even a stunted tree reaches toward the sunlight.

Another priest, a priest of Elua, had spoken a different prophecy for me, long ago, when I was still a boy When I had first undertaken Blessed Elua's vigil on the Longest Night. The priest had spoken to me of love.

You will find it and lose it, again and again.

That, I tried to forget.

I never dreamed there was such a vast difference between loving and being in love. When we were together, it was glorious. I was happier than I'd been since I was a child, since before I was taken. When we were apart, which was far too much of the time, my emotions ran rampant. Betimes I was filled with misery and self-pity, aching with longing. Betimes I brooded and conceived countless schemes wherein I confronted Queen Ysandre and the entire Court and proclaimed our love, challenging Barquiel L'Envers at the point of a sword when he rose to defame me.

And betimes I was angry and struggled against it. I didn't want this feeling, and it seemed absurd I couldn't shake loose of it. I couldn't, though. Absurd or no, love had set its hooks in my heart, and they were barbed and deep.

I loved her.

I hated it.

Elua, it was hard, so hard, seeing her at Court! After hours of blissful lovemaking, we'd lost the trick of being cordial with one another in public. Even before, there had been an invisible cord between us. Now it seemed like a living thing, pulsing with intimacy.

Still, we hid it; or at least I thought we did. We were careful and overly cool in the public eye. It spawned talk of ill will between us— over the absent Maslin de Lombelon who had never made any secret of disliking me, over my rumored dalliance with Sidonie's favorite lady-in-waiting, over my aspirations in Alba, over my long-standing favoritism toward Alais.

Betimes I would see Ysandre's gaze linger on us with regret, and all I could think was how much more distraught the Queen would be if she knew I was calculating how many hours or days it might be before I could lose myself in the arms of her naked, nubile heir, whose name ran like a constant refrain through my thoughts. And then I would have to look away for fear it was written on my face.

It was, of course, to those who knew how to read it.

I wasn't so great a fool that I thought I could keep my state from Phèdre; only its cause. As the days wore on and I was mooning and restless, sleeping poorly and picking at my food, I half expected her to confront me. Instead, she merely regarded me with a speculative look and kept her thoughts to herself.

Joscelin was another matter.

“There's somewhat I'd like to see today,” he announced one morning as we broke our fasts. “I've been thinking we might try a crop of sunflowers in Montrève, and Tibault de Toluard has invented a means of using a hypocaust system to germinate seeds months early. I thought you might be interested, Imri.”

I shook my head. “I've a session with the ollamh.”

“We'll go afterward,” Joscelin suggested. “It's right here in the City.”

Afterward, I had had hopes of wallowing in tangled bedsheets with Sidonie. I toyed with a hunk of honey-smeared bread. “Seems an odd spot to germinate seeds.”

“It's just a trial. If it works, he'll build a larger system in Siovale.” Joscelin tapped the table. “You know, Drustan told me about a place in Alba where the springs run warm as blood, summer and winter alike. If Lord Tibault's method works, you might replicate it there. Think of it! A hypocaust that needs no fuel.”

All Siovalese are mad for inventions. Joscelin, born and bred in the mountains of Siovale, was no exception. I drizzled more honey on my bread, watching it coil and dissolve in a puddle of amber-gold. “If it's an Alban spring, like as not it's sacred.” I'd learned a few things from my studies.

“Still,” Joscelin said dryly. “I'd like you to come.”

I glanced up at his tone. Unless we were sparring, there was very little Joscelin asked of me. And I owed him a debt I could never repay.

“All right.” I set down my bread and squared my shoulders. “Yes, of course.”

We spent the better part of the afternoon in a building on the outskirts of the City marketplace, where some enterprising D'Angeline merchant had thought to build a bath in the Tiberian style. The venture had failed, but the Marquis de Toluard had purchased the building and converted the hypocaust to his own purposes.

“See!” he crowed, pointing to the etiolated seedlings sprouting in the trenches of rich soil. “If it works, we'll gain weeks. A month, mayhap.”

Joscelin poked at a seedling with a dubious finger. “It wants sunlight, my lord.”

“I know.” The Marquis steered him to the far end of the trenches, where a patch of daylight bathed the seedlings. “See, here…”

His voice trailed away, or at least, I stopped listening. While Joscelin and Lord Tibault debated the merits of his system and whether the benefits of an early harvest outweighed the cost of charcoal to fuel the hypocaust, I lost myself in a pleasant memory of Sidonie crouched between my thighs, performing the languisement. Elua knows how, but the incident at Bryony House had reached her ears and we'd made a wager, both of us laughing about it. I'd lost the moment I saw her delicate pink lips engulf the head of my phallus, sliding down the shaft to meet her clutching fist. The mere sight was enough to drive me over the edge.

I'd paid my debt in kisses, tasting my seed on her tongue, thick and salty.

“…percentage of seedlings don't take root—” Joscelin gave me a funny look. “Imri?”

I shook myself, praying I hadn't groaned aloud. “Oh, yes. I'm listening.”

“Ha!” Tibault de Toluard clapped me on the back. “Daydreaming of love, young highness? I remember it well, those days.” He patted my shoulders. “Enjoy, enjoy. May she or he be worthy of your reveries.”

“Thank you, my lord,” I murmured.

Joscelin didn't comment, or at least not then. It wasn't until the ride home when he suggested we share a jug of ale at the Cockerel. Emile greeted us with effusive joy. At Joscelin's request, he secured us a quiet table in the corner, backing away with a finger to his lips and elaborate promises of discretion.

“So.” Joscelin poured two foaming mugs of ale and shoved one toward me. “Shall we talk about it? Phèdre and I drew lots, and I lost.”

“Truly?” I asked, scandalized.

“No, of course not.” He hid a half-smile with a sip of ale. “Well, the part about talking, yes. Since you didn't bring it to her, we both thought mayhap it would be best if I pressed the issue. Love, is it?”

I took a long drink. “Joscelin, would you believe me if I told you you'd rather not know?”

“I would,” he said. “Trouble is, I already do.” When I didn't say anything, Joscelin continued. “According to Ti-Philippe, there's gossip among the Palace Guard that you've been dallying with one of the Dauphine's ladies-in-waiting,” he said, and I relaxed. Joscelin raked me with a sharp gaze. “And the trouble with that, love, is that Phèdre doesn't believe it.”

“Oh,” I said faintly. “Why ever not?”

Joscelin shrugged and sipped his ale. “Naamah's business. She's known the young lady's mother for a long time. Exactly what they've concocted between them, I couldn't say, except that Phèdre's certain the lady in question wouldn't engage in casual dalliance. And therefore, based on your strange and secretive behavior, my love, she has conceived the sort of outrageous notion that I would discredit in a heartbeat if I hadn't spent half my life watching Phèdre nó Delaunay's outrageous notions proved true.”

I looked away. “What makes you think it's casual?”

“I don't,” he said. “Not by the way you're carrying on. I also don't think it's Amarante of Namarre you're mooning over.” Joscelin waited until I looked reluctantly back at him. Puzzlement and disbelief were etched on his face as he lowered his voice to a scarce audible murmur. “Imriel…Sidonie?”

I groaned and put my head down on the table. “Oh, Joscelin!”

“Elua's Balls! It's true?”

I clutched my hair. “Yes.”

“Why?” He sounded as though he was trying not to laugh. “Name of Elua, Imri! Why?”

Dragging myself upright in my chair, I poured out the story to him, starting with last year's boar hunt, the spooked horse, and Sidonie's laughter. I'd not told anyone but Mavros, and once I started, the words tumbled out. Joscelin listened to me in a state of bemused awe, periodically glancing around to ensure that Emile's assurance of discretion was holding.

“Are you quite sure we're talking about the same person?” he asked dubiously as I rambled on about how passionate, uninhibited, and devastatingly funny she was. His voice dropped again. “Sidonie de la Courcel? The Dauphine of Terre d'Ange?”

“You don't know her,” I said helplessly.

“So it seems.” Joscelin refilled my cup. “You know, her mother has a fierce temper, and one rarely sees that in public. The women of House Courcel have learned to keep a sharp check on their emotions. I suppose…” He shook his head. “You do know this is a disaster in the making?”