Kushiel's Justice (Page 18)

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“I'm not going anywhere, Sun Princess,” I murmured, taking the time to plant a kiss on the upturned palm on her outstretched hand. “Not tonight, I promise you.”

“I don't mean tonight.”

I freed her other wrist. “Tell me.”

“You.” Sidonie tossed off the coils of rope, sat up, and shook her head impatiently. “Imriel, have you any idea how many women of the Court look at you and see somewhat beautiful and damaged and dangerous? Have you any idea how many dream of easing that haunted look behind your eyes?” She raked one hand through her hair. “Name of Elua! You don't, do you?”

“No,” I said softly. “I …no.”

“You're so…” She shook her head again. “And the damnable thing is, I wasn't one of them. Never. And now you smile at me, and it feels like my heart's on a string and it's being yanked out of my chest.”

“I know the feeling,” I said. “All too well.”

Sidonie sighed, drawing up her knees and hugging them. “I love you,” she said in a small voice. “I thought if I didn't say the words, mayhap it would go away. But Elua help me, I do. So much it hurts. So much that I already miss you. I don't know if I can bear it.”

I moved behind her, enfolding her in my arms. “Do we have a choice?”

“Not any good ones.” Sidonie leaned back, head resting on my shoulder. She gazed at the dancing patterns of candlelight on the ceiling. “Believe me, I've thought about it. I can't step aside as Mother's heir. It would fall to Alais, and that would throw everything into chaos in Alba. I can't do it.”

“No, I know,” I said. “Joscelin said to wait a year.”

“Oh, he did, did he?” She shifted in my arms to get a look at me. “You didn't tell me that part.”

“You hadn't told me you loved me,” I observed.

“I was hoping it would pass,” she said wryly. “Elua! This is so stupid.”

“True.” I tightened my arms around her. “But I do love you. Sidonie, in a year, you'll gain your majority. And if I spend it in Alba, no one will be able to claim I didn't do my best to obey the Queen's wishes. Everything would be different.”

“Mayhap,” she mused. “A year's a long time.”

I smiled. “Not so very long.”

Sidonie twisted to look at me again. “What if there's a child, Imriel? That's the whole point, isn't it? To secure the line of succession in a manner agreeable to Terre d'Ange and Alba alike?”

“Yes,” I said slowly. “If there is, there is. I'm sure any child born into Drustan's family would be raised with love and care. I've seen how he is with you and Alais.”

“I'd hate it, though,” she murmured. “Knowing there was such a big part of you that would never belong to me.”

“Possessive?” I asked lightly.

“Of you? Yes.” Sidonie turned all the way around to face me. “I don't mind sharing your body.” She kissed me. “I'm D'Angeline, or at least half. It's the other things that hurt more. Thinking about you laughing with someone else the way we do. Thinking about you sharing your heart. A child would be the worst.” She sighed again. “I know you have to try. And ah, gods, I know I shouldn't feel this way, I know it's not what we've all agreed is best for both nations, but I do.”

“Let's hope I'm not terribly fruitful,” I said.

She nodded. “Let's.”

“You haven't…?” I frowned.

Sidonie laughed. “Oh, that would be an interesting solution, wouldn't it? No, no. I'm not ready to importune Eisheth, not even on your behalf.” She cocked her head and regarded me. “I would, though, someday.”

“Truly?” I whispered.

“Yes.” She took my face in her hands and kissed me. “Truly. Imriel, let's not talk anymore. I'm tired of talking.”

We didn't, not that night. We made love once more, languorous and sweet and slow, altogether different from the first time, and just as nice. The best part was falling asleep together, curled beneath the warm coverlet. It felt so terribly good to feel her body nestled into mine, soft and warm and naked; to hear her breathing slow and deepen into sleep. There was an intimacy to it beyond lovemaking.

And in the morning, when Sidonie awoke and smiled at me, her face soft with sleep and memories of the night's pleasure, hair tousled and the creased impress of her pillow on one cheek, I knew I was wrong.

A year was a very, very long time.

Chapter Twelve

The red sails of the Cruarch's flagship were sighted early that spring.Almost every other year of my life, I'd heard the news with gladness. In the Sanctuary where I grew up, it meant there would be a feast that night with toasts to Drustan's health. In the City of Elua, it meant Phèdre's household would soon depart for Montrève. I'd dreaded it the year Eamonn fostered with us, for it meant he would be leaving, but I'd awaited it in a fever of anticipation the next year, for it meant I'd be free to follow him to Tiberium.

This year, it was like a death-knell.

Worst of all, I was attending a state dinner in honor of Diokles Agallon, the Ephesian ambassador. A full Parliament had convened, and although the Sultan's suit offering alliance through marriage had been declined by House Courcel, Agallon would be returning to Ephesium having secured the trade concessions he sought.

All I cared about was that it meant Sidonie was there.

The hall burst into cheers when the messenger interrupted with the tidings. Sidonie and I exchanged a single stricken glance across the table. We'd hoped for at least another week. I watched the blood drain from her face, watched her square her slender shoulders and begin explaining to Agallon the long-standing tradition of granting a gold ducat to the first person to spot her father's sails.

And then I looked away, because Diokles Agallon was trained in the arts of covertcy, and I didn't want him reading my face.

The next day, I had my final session with the ollamh. Having stuffed our heads full with as much Cruithne lore as they could hold, Firdha actually seemed somewhat proud of Alais and me.

“Do not fail to recite your lessons,” she said sternly, her tone belied by a hint of a twinkle in her eye. “A memory that is not exercised grows frail. Do this, and you may bring pride to Alba.”

Alais was fairly bouncing with eagerness and wanted to talk afterward. I listened to her burble, struggling to rein in my impatience. All I wanted to do was find Amarante and see if she had any message for me.

“Oh, Imri!” Alais clapped her hands together. “Aren't you excited?”

I smiled ruefully. “I'm pleased, love. Remember, I don't know Dorelei well.”

“I wish you hadn't gone away to Tiberium last year,” she said. “You'd know her a good deal better if you'd stayed for the summer. You liked her, though, didn't you? I liked her. Dorelei's not nearly so serious as Talorcan can be.”

“I liked her, yes,” I said.

“She has the best laugh,” Alais reflected, and I winced. My young cousin gave me a sharp-eyed look. “Did you like her as well as you like Amarante?”

“Amarante!” I laughed. “Why do you ask?”

“I'm not stupid, Imri.”

“No, you're not,” I agreed. “I don't know her as well, that's all. Anyway, I thought you liked Amarante, too.”

“I do, only I don't see Sidonie as much since she came to Court. They're always whispering about something. And now you've been acting awfully odd.” She shrugged. “I know what people say, but I don't always believe it, you know.”

“Nor should you,” I said, ruffling her hair. “You're wise beyond your years.”

“Don't do that!” Alais jerked her head away from my touch and scowled. “Imri, if I asked you something, would you tell me the truth?”

I felt bad for ruining her happiness and opened my mouth to make an apologetic promise, but somewhat in her expression, at once wary and determined, stopped me. Alais was clever and observant, and she saw a good deal that others didn't. Young or no, she knew me better than almost anyone at Court; and she knew her sister, too.

“I've never lied to you, Alais,” I said, picking my words with care. “And I don't mean to start. So if you don't think you'd like the answer, think twice before you ask.”

Alais looked away, and I saw her throat move as she swallowed. Although I'd spoken gently, they were harsher words than I'd ever said to her. “Are you…do you mean to ask Father about the Maghuin Dhonn and why the ollamh wouldn't talk about them?”

“Yes, of course.” I relaxed. It wasn't what she'd meant to ask and we both knew it. “Do you, too?”

She shook her head. “I'd rather you did it. He still thinks of me as a child.”

“I will,” I promised. “And I'll tell you about it.”

“That's good.” Alais looked back at me, her violet gaze steady and hurt. “I don't like secrets, Imri.”

“Nor do I, love,” I murmured. “Not this kind.”

Days passed in a flurry, each one bringing a new report of the Cruarch's progress as his ship made landfall and his retinue rode toward the City of Elua, carrying my bride-to-be closer and closer. Ysandre fretted over whether or not it was possible to move our wedding to an earlier date, deciding at last that it was impractical. The announcements had been sent long ago, and a multitude of arrangements were in place. The date would stand, some three weeks after their arrival. She bestowed a massive suite of rooms at the Palace on me, laughing with pleasure at my surprise.

“Where were you planning to bring her?” Ysandre asked. “Surely not your tiny bedchamber in Phèdre's household!”

“I'd not thought on it.” I gazed around the salon. The high ceiling was recessed and trimmed in gilt, containing a fresco depicting Eisheth gathering herbs. The rooms were hung about with costly tapestries and appointed with heavy, ornate furniture. There was even a small balcony overlooking the gardens.

“I know.” Ysandre regarded me with amusement. “Young men can be thoughtless. But Imriel, you are a prince of Terre d'Ange and a member of House Courcel, and the young lady is sister to the Cruarch's heir. At some point, you're expected to live as such.”

“My thanks.” I bowed. “You're very generous.”

She waved a dismissive hand. ” 'Tis naught, truly.”

It was a bitter piece of irony. I daresay Ysandre would have given me aught I'd asked for in those days, glad as she was to have the matter settled. She was in high spirits, anticipating Drustan's arrival and the forthcoming wedding. And I was in misery, because the only thing in the world I wanted was the one thing she would never give me: her daughter.

We had almost no time together. My own birthday arrived, and the Cruarch's party was gauged to be two days away from the City. Between that and the coming wedding, there would be no natal festivities for me this year. No chance to hatch another mad scheme, no gift of a second night spent together.

The best we could manage was a few stolen moments. That afternoon, Sidonie and Amarante contrived to pay a visit to view my new quarters while I was there, bringing armloads of blue and yellow irises from the garden. They made a pretty picture, both of them fresh-faced as flowers. The guard attending them lingered outside my door, near enough we didn't dare throw the bolt for fear of raising suspicion. Amarante found a tall vase of Serenissiman glass in one of the ornate cabinets—more of the Queen's largesse—and began arranging the irises.

“Mind you tell one of the servants to refill the ewer on the bath stand,” she called to me. “I'm using all your water!” Tilting her head toward the bedchamber, she added in a low voice. “For Elua's sake, please be quiet in there.”

We managed, barely.

It was a hushed, hurried encounter. In the zenana, there were women addicted to opium, the only pleasure the Mahrkagir ever afforded us. Betimes he took it away to see them suffer. I never saw such profound, aching relief and gratitude as on the days when the opium was restored, even the merest crumbs of it. One would have thought the release it provided was life itself. It scared me, for I never understood it.

I understood it better now.

Sidonie and I kissed and grappled with frantic haste, tearing at each other's clothes with urgent whispers. I sank into her with a gasped prayer of thanksgiving and she bit my shoulder to stifle a whimper. We ground against one another, clutching and thrusting and shuddering our way to a rushed climax.

“Wait.” Sidonie caught my arm as I made to rise. “I have something for you.” She knelt and rummaged in the purse tied to the girdle of her abandoned gown. “You gave me the idea for it. I didn't have time to have a box made.”

I knelt opposite her. “What is it?”

“Give me your hand.” She took my right hand and slid a ring onto my fourth finger. It was heavy and warm. I glanced down at our joined hands and laughed. Gold; a knot of gold. Sidonie smiled. “I didn't want you to forget.”

“Never,” I said. “We're bound together, you and I.”

“So it seems,” she said wistfully.

I wanted to kiss her until the sorrow passed, lay her down and make love to her until the world crumbled around us, but there was no more time. Instead we rose and donned our clothing, returning to the salon to exclaim over the glorious vase of irises while Amarante regarded us with concern and love in her green eyes. And then there was no more time at all, no reason for them to linger without giving the Guard cause to wonder, for all the Court knew all too well that Sidonie and I were not overly fond of one another, and one thoughtful gesture would do little to allay it.