Kushiel's Justice (Page 20)

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“Conquest comes in many forms,” Drustan said quietly. “I do not like the Maghuin Dhonn, but I understand them. It is my responsibility to do so. The Tiberians came with shields and swords and we fought them off. Terre d'Ange comes with merchants and architects, pleasure-houses, bridegrooms and”— he nodded at his desk—”books. Tell me, Imriel, which do you think is more dangerous?”

To that, I had no answer.

Chapter Thirteen

In the days preceding the wedding, all manner of visitors streamed into the City of Elua. Some came from beyond Terre d'Ange, like the Lady Nicola L'Envers y Aragon and her son Raul, who would celebrating his own nuptials with Colette Trente. Most were D'Angeline, lords and ladies of the realm I barely knew by name. Phèdre, who had spent rather more time during my youthful years training me in the arts of covertcy and allowing me to pursue the study of philosophy than she had teaching me the protocol of the peerage, sought in haste to rectify her oversight. We spent many long hours poring over the list of peers invited to attend.The one guest I most longed to see, Eamonn mac Grainne, was nowhere in sight.

There was no word from him, no word at all. It worried me when I had time to think on it. I had visions of him lying slain in Skaldia, bright blood staining the snow. And in the midst of my private heartache and the swirl of courtly chaos, betimes I wished I'd gone with him in pursuit of the ill-tempered Skaldic bride he adored for no reason I could fathom, but which I nonetheless understood far, far better than I had in Lucca.

A clean death in the snows of Skaldia might have been preferable to this.

Instead of Eamonn, the spring heralded the return of some of the last people on earth I wanted to see. There was Bernadette de Trevalion, of course, and my erstwhile friend Bertran. That, at least, I had expected. I'd made my choice and I was reconciled to living with it.

The other one was worse: Maslin of Lombelon, back from his period of disgrace among the Unforgiven of Camlach.

Oh, I hated him!

I hated him because I'd admired him, once. He was the bastard son of Duc Isidore d'Aiglemort, traitor and hero, gotten on the daughter of the Master Gardener of Lombelon, a tiny estate with a peculiar history. It had been my mother's, once. She had deeded it to d'Aiglemort, no doubt in thanks for conspiring there with her. And d'Aiglemort had died ere he could acknowledge his son, slain on the fields of Troyes-le-Mont, avenging my mother's betrayal of him. Lombelon fell into the Queen's purview, and she deeded it to my father as a gift on his wedding day, when he wed my traitorous mother with all the world unwitting. And then he died as a result of her treachery.

Thus, it fell to me.

I'd met Maslin there. I'd seen his love for the place, his fierce pride. I'd thought I had a chance to right a wrong, to make a friend, and so I did. I did the thing I thought right and best, and I deeded Lombelon to him.

Phèdre had warned me he might resent me for it, but I did it anyway. And I understood, with sorrow, when her words proved true. Maslin left Lombelon to enlist in the Queen's Guard. We spoke of it once. He told me with bitterness that I'd made it small in his eyes. It hurt, but I understood. If it was only that…

It wasn't, though.

Sidonie liked him.

I saw her brighten at his return. There were rumors; there were always rumors. I knew the truth of them. She hadn't taken him as a lover, though she'd considered it. Was still considering it, or would after I left. She didn't say it, but I knew. And it was true that she'd promised to appoint him as the Captain of her Guard within a few years of reaching her majority, provided he acquitted himself well after being restored to his lieutenancy.

Maslin loved her.

I knew it, knew it. I'd seen it in his face the day of the boar hunt, and I saw on his return nothing had changed. He watched Sidonie with what passed for dedicated attentiveness, but there was more in it. A tender surety, a possessiveness. I knew, I saw it.

To her credit, Sidonie did naught to encourage it, beyond making it clear that she was pleased to see him. I daresay she'd no more heart for the Game of Courtship in those days than I did, and although I was forced to play it with my bride, Sidonie wasn't one to do the same out of spite. She knew too well what I was feeling. Still, in a few months, I would be gone and Maslin would be there, a handy balm to soothe an aching heart.

The knowledge grated on me, and I half wished he'd do somewhat to offend me. I would have welcomed a chance to challenge him. Whether or not I could have defeated him, I couldn't say for sure, but I would have been glad to try. But no; Maslin had learned a measure of discipline from his time in Camlach. He was polite and contained, and even made a gracious apology to Raul.

Preparations progressed apace and still no Eamonn.

No time to see Sidonie alone, even for a moment.

On the eve of my wedding, my Shahrizai kindred threw a bridegroom's fête. It was a gorgeous affair hosted by Duc Faragon himself, although Mavros and Roshana had planned it. Suffice to say it was splendid and opulent, and a centerpiece of the festivities was a Kusheline game played with blindfolds. As the musicians began to play a merry tune, the Shahrizai mingled among their laughing, blindfolded guests, directing them to exchange partners and dance until they guessed their identities, forfeiting a kiss for each wrong guess. I was tying my blindfold in place when I felt a hand on my elbow, steering me toward the colonnade along the hall.

“Here,” Mavros murmured in my ear. “You've got all of a minute.”

Sidonie was waiting, hidden by a tall marble column. The sight of her nearly broke my heart. Her honey-gold hair was piled in a coronet and my sunburst earrings adorned her delicate earlobes. Her black eyes were filled with tears.

“Sidonie …” I whispered.

She shook her head. “Don't. Don't say anything.”

I took her face in my hands and kissed her instead, long and deep. I pressed her against the column so hard it must have bruised her shoulders. She clung to me as though she were drowning and kissed me back, hands tugging the hair at the nape of my neck, silently urging me for more and more and more.

Shouts of mirth and laughter rose above the music. In the hall, blindfolds were being removed, one by one.

“Time,” Mavros said quietly from the other side of the column.

We broke apart. I touched Sidonie's kiss-swollen lips. “I love you.”

Her eyes glittered. “I love you, too.”

And that was all, all that there was time for. Mavros came around the column to take Sidonie's hand and lead her discreetly back into the crowd. I loitered a moment before following.

Such was the eve of my wedding night. Ysandre and Drustan had made an appearance. They had even taken part in the blindfold game in a display of good-natured sportsmanship. I stood at Duc Faragon's side as they made their farewells, and Sidonie stood at theirs, avoiding my gaze. Everyone else seemed very pleased at this splendid evidence of rapprochement between House Shahrizai and House Courcel. The Queen had proved her generosity of spirit; the truth of Duc Faragon's oath of loyalty was acknowledged with gratitude.

At last, their efforts had borne fruit untainted by my mother's treason.

I wondered what they would have thought, both sides, if they'd known that for me, for Sidonie—and for Mavros, who was complicit in it—the entire evening existed for the purpose of one last, desperate kiss. One last yearning press of bodies, crush of lips, and starved tangle of tongues that could have brought the whole edifice of rapprochement and goodwill crashing down if we had been discovered.

It would have been worth it.

Almost.

I nearly wished it had happened. But there was Alba; there was Drustan's honesty and his faith, and promises I'd made. There was Dorelei, sweet and trusting. There was youth, Sidonie's and mine, and Maslin of Lombelon, and the fact that I couldn't say, not with utter, absolute certainty, that in a year's time, I would feel as I did now, that my heart was being yanked from my chest at the thought of being parted from her. It would have been simple, so simple, if we were commonfolk. It wouldn't have mattered, then.

But we weren't.

We were the Dauphine of Terre d'Ange and a Prince of the Blood, soon to be a Prince of Alba. And we could not afford to be any more young and foolish than we were. The stakes were too damnably high.

So I stood beside barrel-chested Duc Faragon, the head of House Shahrizai, his hair silver with age. Stood and watched Queen and Cruarch depart, their guards escorting them, their daughter beside them, her carriage erect and proud. Her slender back upright as a spear, giving no sign that I'd bruised her shoulder blades against the cold, unyielding marble column, pinning her with my passion.

Elua! I could have wept.

I didn't, though I wanted to. I watched them go, dry-eyed.

And on the following day, I married Dorelei mab Breidaia.

The ceremony was held in the Palace gardens, site of a thousand fêtes. Drustan and Ysandre's own wedding had taken place there and I was meant to be honored by the gesture, though of course it only served as a bitter reminder of Sidonie's birthday and the pangs of loss and resentment that consumed me.

Indeed, the entire day felt like a wake. It was strange to arise in my room in Phèdre's townhouse—my tiny bedchamber, Ysandre had called it—knowing I wouldn't be returning to Montrève's household. Oh, I'd visit, of course, but it would all be different. No more days beginning with Ti-Philippe's teasing at the breakfast table, no more of Eugènie's efforts to spoil me with heaping platters of food, no more afternoons sparring in the courtyard with Joscelin, no more nights ending with a quiet word of love from Phèdre.

The mood in the household was somber. Phèdre and Joscelin, knowing full well my heart was heavy, made no effort to lighten it with false merriment. The rest of the household took their cues from us, and in truth, I think no one was lighthearted that day.

I dressed slowly and reluctantly. My wedding attire was Courcel blue, this time adorned with gold embroidery. I'd thought it foolish to have new clothing commissioned when I already had a suit much like it, but Ysandre had insisted. The brocade doublet fit close through the waist, with a high collar that closed at the throat with golden frogs. It was going to be hotter than hell, and I was already stifling.

“Imri?” Phèdre knocked lightly at the door and I admitted her. She regarded me with a complex mix of emotions. “Ah, love! You look splendid.”

“Feels like I'm choking,” I informed her.

She reached up to fuss with my collar, her fingers cool against my skin. Whatever she did, it felt better afterward. I caught her hands and kissed them. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome.”

There are never any words to suffice when one wants them. We stood there for a moment, hands joined. After a while, Phèdre sighed.

“Time to go?” I asked.

“I'm afraid so.” She touched my cheek. “Imriel, be kind to the girl. I know what you're feeling, but remember, none of it is her fault. And don't…don't expect her to share all of your desires.”

“I won't,” I said. Once, it would have made me appalled and uncomfortably aroused to contemplate such a thing, to hear Phèdre give voice to it. Now I merely smiled sadly, remembering the shocked thrill of delight that had run through me at Sidonie's unexpected words, and ah, Elua! the sight of her in bonds, naked and writhing. “Still, I suppose one never knows.”

“I do,” Phèdre said quietly.

“Always?” I asked.

“Always.” She returned my smile, filled with fond sorrow. “Oh, Imri! All I ever wanted was for you to be happy. And happiness isn't always where you think you'll find it. Promise me you'll at least try?”

“I will,” I said. “I promise.”

Downstairs, Joscelin was waiting. I watched them exchange a wordless glance that racked me with a helpless blend of love and envy. I couldn't begrudge them what they had together; not now, not ever. But oh, I could envy them!

The hours that followed passed in a waking daze. We travelled by carriage to the Palace, and the streets were lined with people, cheering and throwing flower petals, for Ysandre had decreed a day of license in the City. Hugues and Ti-Philippe served as our outriders, acknowledging the shouts and bawdy jests with cheerful waves.

I slumped in my seat and stared at the roof of the carriage, tugging at my collar, sweltering in my finery.

“Imri!” Joscelin said sharply. “Name of Elua! Stop moping.”

A thousand angry retorts were born and died on my tongue. Phèdre had walked into a living hell of her own volition to rescue me, and Joscelin had gone with her. When all was said and done, his role may have been the hardest of all. I was acting like an idiot and it reflected badly on all of us. I sat up straight and did my best to make them proud of me. After all, it was only a year; and no one need die for it.

I married Dorelei.

It was hot in the Palace gardens, hotter than anyone had expected it to be that day. Dorelei and I stood side by side, our damp fingers entwined, before Elua's priest, barefoot in his blue robes. I was sweating in my doublet and there was a sheen of perspiration along her hairline, beneath the wreath of flowers that adorned her black hair. The priest touched the greensward, lifted his palms to the sky, and invoked Elua's blessing on us. He anointed our brows with oil. He gave us vows to recite, and we recited them. Dorelei spoke hers with a soft, lilting accent. I was surprised by the sound of my own voice, strong and firm. The priest spread his arms in blessing and bade us seal our union with a kiss.

Several hundred people I couldn't have cared less about cheered. Dorelei mab Breidaia, now my wife, raised her face to mine. Dark eyes, Cruithne eyes.