Kushiel's Justice (Page 19)

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So they went and I watched them go, a knot of gold on my finger and a knot tightening around my heart.

And two days later, the Cruarch's party arrived.

I'd learned a good deal about dissembling in Tiberium, carrying on an affair with Claudia Fulvia beneath the oblivious noses of her husband, her brother, and my friends. Training in the arts of covertcy, she called it. But that was nothing compared to this. Lying comes easy when one's heart isn't engaged.

As always, we greeted them at the gates of the City and there were crowds and showers of flower petals. The commonfolk of Terre d'Ange loved the ritual. I stood in a place of honor between Alais and Phèdre with a false smile plastered on my face, watching the Cruarch of Alba and his niece ride toward us, surrounded by guards.

Sister of his heir; my bride-to-be.

Dorelei mab Breidaia was much as I remembered her. Cruithne through and through, slight and dark, with wide-set black eyes that appeared at once shy and startled. There were twin lines of dots etched beneath her eyes in blue woad, high on her cheekbones. Thanks to the ollamh's lessons, I now knew they meant she had had true dreams and passed a season studying women's secrets among the Cullach Gorrym. More than that, I was not privy to know, although Alais knew some of it.

The Queen's herald announced her as my betrothed and the crowd cheered. Dorelei caught my eye and blushed a dusky rose. I smiled at her, clenching my right hand into a fist so hard I felt Sidonie's ring dig into my flesh.

In the hours that followed, I did it more than once.

Blessed Elua, the formal reception was agonizing. Naturally, I was expected to dance attendance on Dorelei. Even if it hadn't been for Sidonie, I think it would have been difficult. Dorelei and I had gotten to know one another some little bit last spring, but not well. And now, in three weeks' time, we were to be wed. The shadow of it hung over us, reminding us that we were nearly strangers.

It made her shy and it made me awkward, and all the while, I dared not glance in Sidonie's direction. I knew where she was, always. I could feel her presence on my skin, sure as the sun's warmth.

Firdha the ollamh attended the reception, small and dignified with her golden oak branch in hand. When she entered, Drustan greeted her with a bow worthy of an equal. “Daughter of the Grove, how did your pupils fare?”

Our instructor returned his bow. “Well enough, Cruarch. You will find the lad sufficient, I think. And it is my recommendation that the lass return to Alba with you come autumn to pass a year among us ere her wedding.” A smile touched her lips. “She is a child of Necthana's line and should learn to read her dreams.”

At that, Alais let out a squeak of happiness. It was what she had hoped for, although she'd been convinced Firdha wouldn't say it. Dorelei laughed for the first time that day and hugged her. While I was away in Tiberium, they'd become fond of one another. “I'd like that, little sister. Perhaps you could stay with us.”

“Oh, Imri!” Alais' eyes shone. “Could I?”

“Of course.” I made myself smile at her. “If your father allows it, I'd like nothing better.”

It was good, at least, that someone was joyous. And I was happy for her. Alais had never been truly at ease at Court and the Cruithne blood ran strongly in her. Back in the days when we spoke often together, she had wondered if she would feel more at home in Alba.

I hoped she would.

I knew I wouldn't.

In the days that followed, my sense of time's passage spun completely out of proportion. Minutes and hours dragged on to eternity, while days passed in the blink of an eye. The Palace was constantly a-bustle with preparations for the wedding. I was plagued on all sides with the demands of courtship that were expected of me, and I couldn't steal a moment alone with Sidonie.

Once, we encountered one another unexpectedly in the halls as I was escorting Dorelei from the audition of a renowned flautist in the Queen's quarters, one of the myriad musicians hoping to play at the wedding. He'd been nervous and played poorly. After he left, I'd declared that Hugues would have done a better job, and then had to explain to Dorelei who Hugues was. I was reciting some of his worst poetic verse to the accompaniment of her delighted laughter when it happened.

I stopped dead. For the space of a heartbeat, Sidonie and I stared at one another, Dorelei's laughter still ringing in the hallway. I clenched my fist, feeling the ring's bite.

“Well met, your highnesses,” Amarante said quietly behind her mistress. Sidonie reached back and caught her hand, squeezing it hard enough to hurt. I knew, I could tell.

I said something; I don't know what. We passed and moved onward on our separate courses. Dorelei's slim brown fingers rested on my arm.

“They're very different for sisters, aren't they?” she observed. “Alais and Sidonie.”

“Yes,” I said shortly.

“I like Alais,” Dorelei mused. “Sidonie …she's like a house without a door. It's harder to see her as Drustan's daughter, there's so much of her mother in her. Very D'Angeline.” She glanced up at me and lowered her voice. “Is it true that the Lady Amarante was brought here to instruct her in…in the bedchamber?”

I gritted my teeth. “Yes.”

Dorelei shook her head in wonderment. “That's what Alais said! I didn't believe it.”

“Why ever not?” I asked.

“I'm sorry.” She flushed. “It's not our way, that's all. To teach such things as though they were a fit matter for study, to build pleasure-houses …I'm sorry, I've offended you.”

“No, no.” I patted her hand. “I'm being rude, forgive me.”

“No, I was.” Dorelei stole another glance at me. “Prince Imriel, please believe me, I'm not…that is, I look forward to our nuptials.” Her flush deepened. “You do not find me as pleasing, I know. I'm sorry.”

I sighed, feeling horrible. “Oh, my lady! 'Tis untrue.” I touched her cheek. “Mayhap you have heard,” I said gently. “I was stolen as a child and forced to endure a difficult time.” She nodded, her wide-set gaze fixed on mine. I had never, ever traded on my history for pity. Now I did, vile and deliberate. “Betimes it makes me cold,” I said to her. “And I am sorry for it. But I will do my best to be a good husband to you.”

“I understand,” Dorelei whispered. “You will, I know you will!”

It was all there in her adoring gaze, everything Sidonie had said. The reflection of myself, the yearning to heal, to be the one who made me whole. Too late, I wanted to say; too late. I'd already found it. I'd found it in the last place in the world anyone would expect, in the one person who'd never harbored any such desires.

I couldn't, though.

I patted her hand again. “My thanks, my lady. I will try.”

In the midst of all of it, with the wedding hurtling down on me like an avalanche, I had a private meeting with Drustan mab Necthana. I'd requested it at the reception upon his arrival and he'd readily agreed, but then he'd put me off twice, citing pressing affairs. I was beginning to doubt his sincerity, but he sent around a note of apology and we met some ten days prior to the wedding.

It was the first time I'd ever met man-to-man with the Cruarch of Alba. Drustan received me in his personal study at the Palace. I was surprised to find it cluttered with books and letters and writing materials.

“I was beginning to think everyone in Alba held the written word in disdain,” I commented, taking a seat at his nod of invitation.

Drustan smiled briefly. “In Alba, I have the luxury of following Cruithne customs. Outside of Alba, it is different. I bear many responsibilities as the Cruarch.”

“So I understand,” I said.

His gaze sharpened. “What did you wish to speak of?”

“The Maghuin Dhonn.” I took a deep breath. “My lord, before I wed Dorelei, there are things I wish to know. Who are the Maghuin Dhonn? What is a diadh-anam and why did the Maghuin Dhonn sacrifice it? Exactly how widespread is the dissension in Alba? Is it merely tribal feuding or is it somewhat more?”

My words hung in the air between us. Drustan didn't answer right away. He rose and paced the room with his uneven gait, his hands clasped behind his back. When he was seated or riding astride, one forgot the disability of his clubbed foot. Still, he moved well despite it, steady and deft. I didn't find it so hard to see Sidonie as his daughter.

“It's ill luck to speak the name,” Drustan said at length.

“You've spoken it,” I pointed out. “Alais heard you.”

The Cruarch of Alba sighed. “She hears too much.”

“She has a right to know,” I said. “So do I.”

“So be it.” Drustan sat down to face me, hands on his knees. “You know that the Cullach Gorrym lay claim to being the first folk in Alba?” he asked, and I nodded. “So do the Maghuin Dhonn. And truth be told, no one knows who has the right of it. Like us, they came from the east, back when the world was young. Their lore holds they came from a more northerly clime.” He shrugged. “Indeed, they say all the world was colder in those days, so cold the very Straits froze solid enough to cross.”

A shiver brushed my spine. “Do you believe it?”

“I don't know.” His face was grave. “Of a surety, they are old. They were a powerful folk before they lost their diadh-anam, shapechangers and magicians.” I opened my mouth to repeat a question, and Drustan forestalled me with a gesture. “The diadh-anam, the guiding and protecting spirit of a people. Theirs was the Brown Bear. It's a sacred word, from the mysteries. It would been taught you after the rites in Alba, when you truly became part of the Cullach Gorrym.”

“So the Black Boar is the diadh-anam of the Cullach Gorrym?” I asked slowly.

Drustan nodded. “Ever since Lug the warrior followed his diadh-anam across the Straits. There is a geas on me that I may never hunt boar lest I curse the Cullach Gorrym. When I die, the geas will fall upon Talorcan.”

I thought about the story in the Tiberian historian Caledonius' writings. “Somehow, my lord, I suspect that the Maghuin Dhonn did worse than hunt brown bears. Does this have aught to do with the bear that slew the Governor of Alba?”

“Yes.” Drustan's hands tightened on his knees. He gave me a rueful smile that didn't reach his eyes. “I should have guessed Phèdre nó Delaunay's foster-son would know surprising things. The bear was raised in captivity and fed on human flesh until it grew to a vast size. The magicians of the Maghuin Dhonn did that, fed it on the flesh of their own children. And then they sold it to the Tiberians for sport.”

My stomach lurched. “Why?”

“No one knows,” he said softly. “Not truly. The Maghuin Dhonn said it was to summon a curse on the Tiberians. Cinhil Ru said their magicians had gone mad. After it happened, a pox swept through the folk of the Brown Bear. Many, many of them died.”

“But not all of them,” I said.

“No.” Drustan regarded me. “A handful survived and their line continues. And they do not welcome change in Alba, and they do not welcome D'Angelines. But they are few.”

“How few?” I asked.

“A hundred, perhaps?” Drustan shook his head. “Not many. You asked about dissension. They are a wild, fey folk, and they come and go like the wind. They speak against this wedding and seek to stir trouble, spreading whispers of dire consequences to follow. For the most part, they've gone unheeded. There was one small uprising among the Tarbh Cró in the north after the betrothal was announced, easily ended. Nothing more.”

“And the tribal feuding?” I asked.

“Oh, well.” He grinned unexpectedly, teeth white in his woad-marqued face. “Cattle raids and the like. That's to be expected in Alba.”

“I see,” I said.

“You will.” Drustan leaned over and clasped my forearm. “Imriel, listen. If I could root out the Maghuin Dhonn and destroy them, I would. But as long as they merely speak dissension without taking up arms, I can do nothing. Every man, woman, and child in Alba has a right to speak their mind, even to the Cruarch. Firdha taught you as much, did she not?” I nodded and he squeezed my arm. “'Tis a frustrating rule, but a just one. My father sought to quell voices of dissent and paid a price for it. I will not make his mistake.” Drustan looked thoughtful. “Change comes to Alba. Some hunger for it and some fear it. It cannot be forced, nor can it be suppressed. It must come slowly, with wise care and discussion. But I promise you this,” he added, giving me a final squeeze and releasing his grip. “If I believed you would be any less safe in Alba than in Terre d'Ange, I would not ask this of you. And of a surety, I'd not allow Alais to go!”

It was a long speech and an honest one; more honest than he knew, since I was carrying on an illicit affair with Sidonie that made me considerably less safe in Terre d'Ange. I nodded in acknowledgment. “Fair enough, my lord.”

Drustan fixed me with a level gaze. “Do you plan on telling Alais this?”

I returned it without flinching. “I do. She's not a child, you know.”

“You think not?” He smiled fondly. “Wait until you have children of your own. They'll always be little girls in my eyes, my daughters.”

At that I looked away and twisted the gold knot of a ring on my finger. It was an uncomfortable time to be reminded that I'd tied his other little girl's wrists to the bedposts and made her squirm with pleasure and beg me for release. I cleared my throat. “My lord, what is it the Maghuin Dhonn fear from Terre d'Ange? Surely, her majesty has given them no cause to believe we desire aught but a continued alliance through marriage. Terre d'Ange doesn't even maintain a garrison in Alba.”