Kushiel's Justice (Page 16)

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“I know.” I stared into my ale. “We both do.”

“Then why—”

“I can't help it!” I jerked my head up. “I can't.”

Joscelin sighed. He looked at me for a long time, and when he spoke, his voice was gentle. “And are you planning to do aught foolish, love? Like break your word to the Queen in the matter of Alba?”

I'd thought about it. I thought about it every day. “No. I don't know.”

“All right.” Joscelin swirled the ale in his cup. Elsewhere in the tavern, there were Tsingani laughing and chatting. Someone was playing a timbale. “Imriel, we will stand by you whatever you choose,” he said in his direct manner. “Know that, but listen, too. You asked me once how I could bear it; knowing what Phèdre is. Knowing how different we are, knowing we're so ill suited it must make the gods laugh. Knowing it, and choosing it anyway. Do you remember what I told you?”

“I remember.” I knew what he was hinting at, though I didn't much like it. “You said you'd tried doing without her.”

“Even so.” There was sympathy in his summer-blue eyes. “Believe me, love, I know your childhood was stolen. I know that in some ways, you haven't been young since you were ten years old. This isn't one of them. You're very young, and so is she. She doesn't even gain her majority for, what? Two more years?”

“She's seventeen in a few weeks.”

“A little over a year, then.” Joscelin put one gauntleted hand on my arm. “Imri, if it's real, it will endure.”

“How would you know?” I asked, then colored. Still, I kept going. “It's not the same, Joscelin! You left of your own will.”

“Indeed.” He raised his brows. “Whereupon your mother had two of our companions slaughtered and Phèdre thrown into a dungeon so dire that sailors believe it god-cursed. The worst thing you'll have to worry about is that your love will prove inconstant and fickle. Which would you prefer?”

“I take your point,” I muttered.

“Good,” Joscelin said. He squeezed my arm and released it. “And if a year passes and you both feel the same way, at least she'll have gained her majority. If she wants to defy her mother and the peerage, she'll have the legal standing to do so. And if you want leave Alba to be with her, Elua knows, Phèdre and I will move heaven and earth for you.”

I smiled a little. “Promise?”

“Against my better judgment, yes.” Joscelin smiled back at me. “You know, in a way, it makes my heart glad to see you like this. There was a time I wasn't sure…” His voice faded and I knew we were both thinking about Daršanga. Butchery in the festal hall, the screams of dying women, blood running in channels between the flagstones.

“I know,” I said softly. “You, too.”

“Elua's grace is a mysterious thing,” he murmured. “Still…Sidonie?”

I laughed. “Strange to say, yes.” I tipped my cup and downed the last swallow. “Joscelin, is love supposed to make you feel like you're sick and dying, and mad enough to hit someone, and drunk with joy, and your heart's a boulder in your chest trying to burst into a thousand pieces, all at once?”

“Mm-hmm.” He finished his ale. “That would be love.”

Chapter Eleven

I told Sidonie about my conversation with Joscelin, or at least parts of it. Apart from my single declaration, we still hadn't spoken openly about love.Alarm flashed in her eyes. “He's not going to say anything, is he?”

“No, of course not.” I regarded her. “Sidonie, truly. What do you think would happen if we were found out?”

“Truly?” She thought about it. “I think my mother would dismiss Amarante and anyone in else my retinue likely to be the least bit sympathetic. I think she would lock me in my quarters and give me a lecture that blistered my ears, double my guard and fill it with men loyal to her and order them to report on my whereabouts every minute of the day. I think she would pack you off to Alba on the next ship.” Sidonie gave me a level look. “And I think my uncle would try to have you killed at the first opportunity.”

“I see.” Her tone chilled my blood. “Why on earth does he hate me so much? On the long list of people with reason to bear grudges against Melisande Shahrizai's son, he's nowhere near the top.”

“No,” she said slowly. “He's a strange man and an ambitious one. I think he conceived a plan in Khebbel-im-Akkad to create a dynasty for House L'Envers with ties to other powerful nations. But he didn't know my great-grandfather was plotting the same thing with Alba until it was too late and his daughter was already wed to the Khalif's son. Which, in the end, gained him very little here in Terre d'Ange and cost him his best pawn.”

“So his plan failed. Come here.” I tugged her down beside me on the bed. “Still, it's nothing to do with me.”

“No, I know.” Sidonie nestled against me. “I don't know, Imriel. It all happened so long before either of us were born.”

“It's not fair, is it?” I murmured.

“To you least of all.” She took my hand and kissed it, then placed it on her chest. Beneath her soft, warm skin I could feel the steady beat of her heart under my palm. Her dark, lustrous eyes were filled with unwavering trust. “Truly? I think it simply drives him mad to think that after all the spectacular failure of your mother's schemes, you're two heartbeats away from inheriting the throne.”

“But I don't want it,” I said. “Just you.”

Sidonie smiled sadly. “It's a hard case to prove.”

“We could demonstrate,” I suggested, and she laughed and kissed me until we forgot all about Barquiel L'Envers and the disapproving world beyond the door of the bedchamber, making oblivious love until Amarante had to interrupt us to summon her mistress to dine with the Queen, standing over the bed where we lay sweating and entangled until we realized she was there. It had happened more than the once, enough times that I'd lost all traces of self-consciousness about it. Sidonie had never had any, not here.

“I swear to Elua, Sidonie, someone ought to dowse you with cold water,” Amarante said mildly. “Both of you.”

“You don't mean that.” Sidonie extricated herself from the bed, and I lay watching her. She had a deft way of moving, quick and graceful. “And anyway, haven't you heard? I've got ice water in my veins.”

Amarante raised her brows. “Appearances are deceiving.”

It was common wisdom at Court. I'd believed it, too. I remembered the first time I'd danced with Sidonie. Mind you don't get chilblains, Eamonn had said, and I'd laughed. Now, it merely drove me mad and heightened my desire, knowing the depth of wanton abandonment that lurked beneath her cool exterior.

It made me proud of her, too. That was another strange thing about this business of love. All the things that had once irritated me—her imperious manner at Court, her infuriatingly self-possessed demeanor, her dislike of climbing trees—filled me with tender affection.

A bewildering thing, love.

I talked to Phèdre about it. It was a relief, knowing that she knew. I thought surely she would be filled with sage advice, since surely if there was anyone in the world who knew about love in all its myriad forms, it was Phèdre.

On that count, I was wrong. She only laughed. “There's nothing I could tell you about love that you'd believe without learning it for yourself, Imri.”

“But you weren't surprised,” I said.

“About Sidonie?” Phèdre shook her head. “I grew up in the Night Court. Even as children, we heard stories about patrons. By the time I entered Delaunay's service, there was precious little that would surprise me when it came to desire. And you…” She sighed. “Ah, love! The first thing you did when we emerged from the zenana was fling yourself headlong into danger. Why should this be any different?”

I fidgeted at her feet. “It is, though.”

“I know.” She stroked my hair, her voice gentle. “You still worry me, that's all.”

“Phèdre?” I craned my head to look at her. “Did you love my mother?”

In all the years I'd been a part of her household, I'd never dared to ask. Her stroking fingers went still. “Love would be an odd word for it,” she mused. “And yet, in the end, yes. Although I hated her, too.” Phèdre propped her chin in her hand and contemplated me. “There was no one else quite like her. Betimes I think the qualities that made her monstrous might have vaulted her to greatness in other circumstances.”

“Am I like her?” I asked.

“Well, you've a conscience,” she said dryly. “That's one difference. And I don't know that your mother ever did aught impetuous in her life, whereas you…” Phèdre smiled. “You're another matter.”

“I'm not impetuous!” I protested.

“Oh, no?” Phèdre tweaked a lock of my hair. “Truly, Imri? Yes, a little. In a roomful of people, your mother shone. It's naught to do with beauty. For good or for ill, some people seem to love more fiercely, want more powerfully, burn more brightly. She had profound desires and an indomitable will. I see glimpses of that in you.”

I swallowed. “I see.”

“Does that frighten you?” she asked.

“A little,” I said truthfully.

“Ah, love! It's only a part.” She smoothed my mussed hair. “In her own unfathomable way, your mother had a good deal of integrity. I see that in you, too.”

“I keep my promises,” I murmured. Locked away in a cabinet in her study, Phèdre kept a note with those words on it, alongside a diamond on a frayed velvet cord, an ivory hairpin, and a figurine of a jade dog.

“Even so.” Having adjusted my hair to her satisfaction, Phèdre kissed the top of my head. “And there's so much more that's yours, and yours alone, most of all a kind heart and a generous spirit. And rather more courage than I'd like, when you come to it,” she added. “I'm not altogether sanguine about your adventures in Lucca, and I know you've not told me the half of them.”

I laughed. “Eamonn told me his mother said you were the bravest person she'd ever met.”

“Did she?” Phèdre, who had walked into the living hell of Daršanga—a place the most hardened Akkadian soldiers held in dread—of her own volition to rescue me, smiled. “Ah, well. 'Tis a different sort of courage. You've not had word from him, have you?”

“Eamonn?” I shook my head, feeling guilty. “No, not yet.” Although he was my dearest friend in the world, I'd been too caught up in my own affairs to spare much thought for him. I fidgeted with the dagger-sheath strapped to my left leg. “Before he left for Skaldia, he promised he'd try to come for my wedding.”

“Here or in Alba?”

I shrugged. The rites would be held in both places. I was to wed Dorelei mab Breidaia in the D'Angeline fashion here in Terre d'Ange. At the summer's end, we would sail to Alba, where we would be wed in a Cruithne ritual for all of royal Alba to witness. Thus far, outside of my conversations with the Queen, I'd done a good job avoiding thinking about either. Even now, it gave me a horrible pang of loss and longing. “Here, I suppose. I didn't know about the other when last we spoke.”

“Imri.”

I looked up at Phèdre.

The scarlet mote of Kushiel's Dart floated on the iris of her left eye; a crimson petal on a forest pool. It was no accident that I'd lost my heart to a dark-eyed girl who was more than she seemed on the surface. Even as the belated realization dawned in my mind, I saw Phèdre smile ruefully, already knowing my thoughts. No girl, but a woman long grown; Kushiel's Chosen with the Name of God in her thoughts. I'd only ever surprised her once, growing up before either of us were ready for it.

“Do you know,” Phèdre said lightly, “your mother possessed one trait in abundance that you lack. If you were minded to cultivate aught of Melisande Shahrizai, you could do worse.”

I gritted my teeth. “What is it?”

She tilted her head. “Patience.”

As winter eased into spring, Elua knows, I tried. It was hard. The days seemed to rush past, each one bringing a new harbinger of spring. Days grew warmer and windy. Blossoms appeared on fruit-bearing trees. Wisteria climbed the trellis in the inner courtyard where Joscelin and I sparred, clusters of green buds forming. Yellow blossoms opened on the thriving coronilla bushes, releasing honey-sweet fragrance into the damp air.

And Sidonie turned seventeen.

There was a fête, of course. I viewed its advent with a mix of dread and longing. It brought her one step closer to her majority, but every day that passed brought my impending marriage closer, too. If I could have held back time's passage with my bare hands, I would have that spring.

Sidonie's birthday dawned fair and clear, boding well for Ysandre's desire to hold the fête in the royal gardens. Silk pavilions were erected between the lilac trees, large enough to hold a number of couches, and braziers were set all around to drive off the evening's chill. This year, the Queen had contracted a number of adepts from Eglantine House to entertain; musicians, tumblers, and poets.

By the time the guests began to arrive, the first hint of twilight was in the air and servants were lighting the myriad glass lamps strung around the garden. Every pavilion held a table laden with food. The Eglantine adepts mingled with the guests, green and gold ribbons twined in their hair. Here and there, laughter or clapping arose in response to a ribald song or a tumbling display. One greeted us with a handspring and a standing somersault.