Kushiel's Justice (Page 17)

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He came up grinning, ribbons askew in his curly brown hair. “Welcome, welcome, my lords and lady!”

Joscelin nudged Phèdre. “Think you could you still do that, love?”

She laughed. “With a good deal of practice, mayhap.”

“I know you,” I said to the adept, picturing a satyr's mask shoved atop his curls. “The Longest Night, wasn't it?”

He nodded. “Still thoughtful, your highness?”

I glanced over at the royal pavilion, lit from beneath with so many torches that the Courcel blue silk seemed luminous in the twilight. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well, come visit me!” He took my hand in a hard, wiry clasp and winked. “Simon nó Eglantine. I'm very good at not being thoughtful.”

It made me laugh, whereupon Simon grinned again, planted a kiss on my lips, and flung himself backward into another handspring, waving cheerfully before plunging into the midst of the milling guests.

“Charming,” Mavros commented, strolling over to meet me. “It's about time.”

I shook my head at him. “It's not what you think.”

“Pity.” He watched the adept Simon. “They're very flexible, tumblers.” His voice dropped. “Tell me, are we still going through with your mad scheme tonight?”

“Are you still willing to help?” I asked.

Mavros sighed. “Oh yes, fool that I am! You are family.” He touched the purse at his belt. “I have the ribbons here.”

“Good.” I clapped his shoulder. “I have to greet Sidonie.”

She was seated on a couch in the royal pavilion, surrounded by courtiers and well-wishers presenting gifts. The wealthier of the young noblemen vied to outdo one another with extravagant tokens, each of which was admired publicly before being handed into a servant's keeping. I lingered for a moment, smiling inwardly at the cool way Sidonie accepted them. The only time I heard her voice warm was when a young scion of the impoverished House Labarre stammered apologies for having nothing more to offer her than a flask of cordial with a limp bunch of violets tied around the neck.

“Imri!” Alais spotted me and broke my reverie. She had Celeste with her, the wolfhound pacing sedately at her side. “See how good Celeste is being?” she asked after I'd kissed her in greeting. “Mother wanted me to leave her.”

“Oh no, we couldn't have that,” I said gravely, dropping to one knee. “So you've not filched a thing tonight, have you, Celeste?”

The wolfhound regarded me with apologetic dignity. “Only a very small squab,” Alais said defensively. “And I didn't let her eat the bones.”

I smiled. “Good girl.”

“Prince Imriel.” Amarante's voice, that calm tone Sidonie emulated so terribly well. I had to own, it made one wonder what she sounded like unstrung with passion. She was smiling as I rose. There was genuine affection in it, and I remembered Sidonie saying I'd won her over when I'd sewn up Alais' wounded dog. “Well met, your highness.”

“Well met, my lady.” I bowed. “Mavros was hoping to see you.”

Her smile deepened. “Oh, indeed?”

It was a part of our plan, though seeing Alais' gaze sharpen, I wondered if Mavros wasn't right about the madness of it, and mayhap it would be wiser not to go through with it. Well, of course it would be wiser, but… I sighed. “I've got to greet your sister, villain,” I said to Alais.

“All right.” Alais knit her brows. “Be nice, Imri.”

“I will be,” I promised.

When I approached, courtiers were exclaiming over the gift Phèdre and Joscelin had presented Sidonie. It was a Siovalese music box in the shape of a clamshell that played a sweet melody when opened, a pearl emerging from the bed of the shell through some cunning, unseen mechanism. An apt gift, I thought, remembering her recounting the lesson of Naamah's Pearl, squirming beneath my finger. At that moment, Sidonie caught my eye. I must have been careless and let my face reveal my thoughts, for a pink flush tinted her cheeks.

“Thank you,” she murmured to Phèdre. “It's lovely, truly.” Sidonie took a deep breath. Her flush faded and she shot me a look that no one else but me would have known was wicked. “Well met, cousin. What have you brought me?”

I bowed. “A small token, your highness.”

Sidonie accepted the polished ebony box I proffered and lifted the lid. Inside, a pair of gold earrings nestled on black velvet; twin sunbursts, miniature duplicates of the pendant she'd worn on the Longest Night. I knew, because I'd persuaded Amarante to borrow it without Sidonie’s knowledge. It wasn't an extravagant gift, but it was a fitting one.

“How clever!” Ysandre, gazing over her daughter's shoulder, sounded surprised. “That's very thoughtful, isn't it?”

“Yes.” Sidonie lifted her head. My gift had moved her, and her black eyes were bright with unshed tears. “Thank you, Imriel.” Her voice was light, but it lingered over my name, sure as a caress. It made my skin prickle. I couldn't imagine that the whole Court couldn't hear it, too. I couldn't imagine that no one could see that for a moment, there was no one in the world but the two of us.

No one did, though.

“I'm glad you like them.” I cleared my throat. “A joyous natality to you.”

Ah, Elua! After that, the fête wore on forever. Under any other circumstances, it would have been pleasant. We dined, we danced, we drank free-flowing wine and enjoyed the Queen's largesse. The Eglantine adepts were sublimely entertaining. Mavros flirted with Amarante, thoroughly enjoying himself. I spent a good deal of time in Alais' company and danced once with Sidonie because it would have been rude not to. We were both so rigid for fear of giving ourselves away, we tripped over one another's feet, which filled us both with a desperate hilarity we had to struggle to suppress.

All in all I thought the night would never end.

Patience.

At last it did. The assembled guests began straggling into the spring night, accompanied by wavering torches and the lingering scent of lilacs. An end was declared to the fête, and the other members of House Courcel retired to the Palace. I made my way to Phèdre and Joscelin's side to tell them I meant to go to the Night Court with Mavros.

“Oh?” Phèdre cupped my face. “Name of Elua, love! Will you please be careful?”

I didn't lie as well as I thought; not to her. Not to Joscelin, either. He eyed me wryly, and I knew I'd not fooled either of them. “Yes,” I said. “I will. We will.”

Joscelin rolled his eyes.

They went, though. I found Mavros, who hauled me behind the lilac bushes. With deft fingers, he braided into my hair the green and gold ribbons he'd brought, creating a cascade of color. “Tilt your head,” he ordered. I obeyed, letting the ribbons fall to obscure my features. Mavros sighed. “I must be out of my wits.”

“Do you think it will work?” I asked.

“Let's find out.”

It was a mad scheme, like a scene in a farcical play. I daresay we deserved to get caught, and the fact that we weren't owed everything to Mavros. He played his role to the hilt, trailing after Amarante as she escorted me to Sidonie's quarters, plaguing her with such incessant wooing that I was hard-pressed not to laugh. Amarante was laughing, fending him off with both hands as she bade the guard on duty outside Sidonie's chambers to fetch her mistress. He obeyed with a grin.

Sidonie came to the door. “Lord Shahrizai,” she said coolly. “Have you become an adept of Eglantine House? I don't believe I requested your presence.”

“Take him, take him!” Mavros shoved me past the distracted guard and wrapped his arms around Amarante, nuzzling her neck. “I've come to lodge a complaint. Your lady-in-waiting has skin as soft and white as apple blossoms and a heart as hard as stone. 'Tis cruel and unfair.”

“My lord!” Amarante protested, laughing.

Sidonie raised her brows. “Giraud, will you summon someone to escort my lord Shahrizai to the Hall of Games?” she said to the guard, who was still grinning. “And mind, I'm not to be disturbed on any account until I arise.”

“Aye, your highness,” he said cheerfully. “A joyous natality to you!

“Unfair!” Mavros shouted, loosing Amarante. “Cruel and unfair!”

“Come on, my lord,” the guard said, taking his arm and steering him down the hall. Sidonie pulled Amarante into her chambers and closed the door firmly behind her, throwing the bolt. The three of us were alone in her salon.

“Name of Elua!” I rubbed my face. “It would have been a good deal easier and safer to go through Amarante's room.”

“But not as much fun,” Amarante observed, sounding less than calm. Whatever else Mavros had accomplished, he'd succeeded in that much.

“No.” Sidonie put her arms around my neck. “And this way, if there's talk of a man in my chambers, which there will be, no one will wonder.” She kissed my throat, making the ribbons in my hair rustle. “I don't think the guards eavesdrop a-purpose, but they'd hear the timbre of a man's voice. I needed a very good reason to be left undisturbed.”

It had been her one wish for her birthday: one night. The two of us alone in her own quarters, her own bed. It seemed absurd that such a simple wish could carry such risk, and yet it did. Unfair, as Mavros said; cruel and unfair.

“I'll leave you,” Amarante said. “If there's trouble…”

“I'll send my Eglantine adept to you,” Sidonie said. She smiled into my eyes. “We'll say I wearied of my gift and chose to share it.”

As plans went, it was no better than the first one. Still, it would have to serve. I didn't care. I reckoned it was worth the risk. Whatever else happened, I wanted this. I wanted it as much as Sidonie did. An entire night…Elua!

After Amarante departed through the adjoining door, Sidonie took my hand and led me through her salon, which was heaped with gifts, to the bedchamber beyond. I stopped in the doorway, swallowing.

The room was ablaze with candlelight. It held a massive four-posted bed, spread with a coverlet of rich maroon velvet. For a moment, I had a dizzying flash of Claudia's bedchamber. There was one difference, though. Coiled in the center of the bed was a length of silken rope.

I looked at Sidonie.

“Only that,” she said gravely. “Only if you truly want to.”

My blood throbbed in my veins. I took a deep breath and smelled only beeswax and the spicy fragrance of a pomander ball on the bedside table. Love was here and Daršanga was far, far away. “Yes,” I said, gathering Sidonie in my arms. “Oh, yes.”

She laughed and kissed me. “Let me take out your ribbons first.”

I did. We undressed one another slowly. After so many stolen hours and rushed encounters, there was an unspeakable luxury in taking our time. The shadows gathered in the corners of the room, the vast expanse of the bed, made everything new and strange.

“You look different by candlelight,” I murmured.

“So do you,” Sidonie whispered.

I trailed one tasselled end of the rope over her bare skin. “You're sure?”

Her back arched. “Imriel…”

“Because I will make you beg,” I breathed into her ear. Ah, Elua! There was a thrill in speaking the words aloud, a thrill in her inarticulate reply. I knelt over her and stretched her arms above her head, pinning her shoulders between my knees. I kissed the insides of her wrists, tasting her rapid pulse. When I tied the first knot with a hard jerk, Sidonie gave a small cry. I glanced down at her. Her eyes were wide and excited.

“Go on,” she whispered.

I learned to tie knots aboard a felucca sailing the Nahar River. I lashed one wrist to a bedpost, threaded the rope around the other bedpost and lashed the other wrist. Hard and tight, her arms splayed wide. The sight of her when I'd finished was beautiful beyond words.

Patience, Phèdre had said.

I found patience in myself that night, although I daresay it wasn't the kind she'd had in mind. Then again, mayhap it was. One never knew for a surety. I made love to Sidonie with my lips and tongue and hands, with endless patience. Again and again, I brought her near the crest of desire and abandoned her there. Her hips jerked in helpless frustration when I took my mouth away, hands above her bound wrists clenching and opening. And ah, Elua! It felt so good.

“Imriel…” Sidonie writhed, almost in tears. “Please!”

“Is it this what you want?” Between her thighs, I sat back on my heels, caressing my erect shaft. It throbbed pleasantly in my hand. “Tell me.

She did, ragged and gasping.

“All right,” I whispered.

I spread her thighs wider, pushing her knees toward her straining shoulders. No more teasing. I fit myself inside her; deep, deeper than I'd ever gone. Her loins rocked against mine and I felt her climax, over and over. I wanted it to last forever. Patience. I held off for what seemed like hours, stroking her long and slow, until a driving urgency overtook me. Deep, deeper, deepest. I buried myself in her, groaning, and spent my seed with a shudder that ran from the crown of my skull to the base of my spine.

We lay there for a long time, panting.

“Imriel.” Sidonie's voice at my ear, low and resonant. “You could untie me now.”

“I'll try.” I rolled off her, picking at knots grown tighter. “Elua's Balls!”

She laughed; that laugh. It made my heart soar. I freed one wrist and kissed it. There were marks where the rope had been. “Better?”

“Yes.” Sidonie flexed her arm, watching me work on the other wrist. “I don't want you to leave.”