Kushiel's Justice (Page 22)

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Betimes I thought the nights were the hardest. A year ago, I wouldn't have thought so. It wasn't long before Dorelei lost most of her shyness in the bedchamber. She was like the Siovalese country girls Eamonn and I had bedded that summer in Montrève, earnest and simple in her ardor. Phèdre was right. If Dorelei mab Breidaia ever gazed into the dark mirror of her own desires, nothing would have gazed back at her.

A year ago, I would have been glad, even if it left me with a vague melancholy yearning for more. I would have accepted it with resolve.

But everything was different now.

It made me angry and unreasonable. It made me want to be cruel; to hurt her, to force her past her boundaries. It would have been heresy and I didn't. But betimes the desire showed in my face or in a careless gesture, when I gripped her flesh hard enough to bruise. And then I would see the fear surface in her eyes and I would apologize to her and hate myself. Worst of all, Dorelei would apologize in turn and try to soothe me, gentle and understanding. It only made me hate myself more.

Still, when all was said and done, I think the days were worse; at least the days when I saw Sidonie.

Elua! Why does love come with such deep barbs? It hurt, more than I knew it could. I tried to tell myself that a year was not a very long time, that things would be different in Alba, that Sidonie was my seventeen-year-old cousin whom I had never much liked anyway.

None of it did any good.

Once you cross a threshold, there is no turning back.

I thought, in those days, about my mother's letters; about what she'd written of Phèdre. I will tell you this, my son: I knew her. Better than anyone; better than anyone else. I hadn't understood those words when I read them, not truly. I understood them better now. For better or for worse, I knew Sidonie. We had bared a portion of our souls to one another, and found, against all odds, an unexpected fit.

Or at least I had.

I wished I could be sure, absolutely sure of her. Sure that her feelings wouldn't change, sure that this was more than a passing fancy. At times, I was sure. And then doubt would creep in and I would wonder. It would all be so much easier to bear if there was no doubt. Easier to be kind and gentle, easier to let the days pass in the certain knowledge of the reward that lay in wait. Instead, I was tormented, swinging wildly from doubt to surety.

All in all, it made me unbearable.

I wanted to see her, to hold her, to pin her down and make savage love to her. But if anything, Sidonie was avoiding me. When I had the chance, I cornered Amarante and begged her to find a way. She gave me a long, unreadable look and made no promises. A few days later, though, Mavros came to fetch me for a visit.

“I thought you could use an outing with a kinsman,” he said blithely, adding to Dorelei, “You don't mind, my lady, do you?”

Her voice was quiet. “No, of course not.”

My heart soared. I was so glad, I kissed her farewell with genuine good spirits. On the ride to Lord Sacriphant's townhouse, I badgered Mavros. “It's a pretext, isn't it? Tell me it's a pretext! Did you manage to spirit Sidonie there?”

“Yes to the first, no to the second,” he muttered. “Elua! Remind me never to fall in love.”

My soaring heart faltered. “What, then?”

Mavros eyed me darkly. “Nothing you'll like.”

He was right. It was Amarante who was waiting at the townhouse, her expression somber. I folded my arms. “Tell me.”

“I have a gift for you, your highness.” She handed me a small leather-bound book trimmed in gilt. “From Sidonie.”

I opened it and glanced at the frontispiece. The book was a collection of letters exchanged by a pair of famous lovers, Remuel L'Oragen of Azzalle and Claire LeDoux of Namarre. They'd met in their youth and been parted by their feuding Houses, carrying on a love affair through letters that spanned a score of years, wedding at last in the middle of their lives. “I see.” I closed the book with a snap. “Very apt. Is that all?”

Amarante's face was a touch pale. “Sidonie thinks it would be best if you don't see one another, at least for a while. With her mother's blessing, she's decided to make a pilgrimage to Naamah's shrine in Namarre and abide there for a few weeks.”

“Praying for guidance?” I asked coldly.

“Mayhap.” Her tone was even. “Prince Imriel, you're behaving badly, and Sidonie is miserable. She's quarrelled with Alais, who is very upset and knows a good deal more than one might wish. And then there is the matter of Dorelei, who is becoming manifestly unhappy and deserves better from all of us, myself included. I think it is for the best. And I think it would be for the best if you found a way to remove yourself from the Court before Sidonie's return.”

“Oh, so says the oracle of Naamah!” Bitterness made me cruel. “You know, Amarante, you may play at the role of priestess, but whoever your mother may be, you're naught but a Court attendant enjoying a taste of royal favoritism.”

She didn't react as I expected. ” 'Tis hard to lose the habits of a lifetime, my lord.”

I blinked, uncomprehending.

“You do know, of course,” Mavros drawled, lounging on a couch, “that Amarante was trained from birth to be a Priestess of Naamah and the presumptive heir to her mother's position. She's already served as an acolyte. Why, she was a mere year away from taking her vows when she accepted the invitation to become a lowly Court attendant instead!”

“You were? You did? Why?” I blinked again. “And how do you know?” I added to Mavros.

“Because I thought this was more important,” Amarante said.

Mavros clicked his tongue. “Imri, Imri! Everyone knows no priest nor priestess of Naamah may swear full vows without spending a year in her service. And I know because I asked.” He sighed. “It sweetens the bitter pill of rejection to hear, 'Oh, Lord Mavros, if ever I am freed from the inexplicable clutches of the heir to the realm, I will dedicate myself to Naamah's service and you shall be my first patron!'“

“You said that?” I asked Amarante, feeling stupid.

Her lips twitched. “No.”

“She might, though,” Mavros offered in a helpful tone. “Part of it's true.

I shoved Mavros' booted feet off the couch and sat down, burying my head in my hands, still clutching the book of letters. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Because you bade me take care of her,” Amarante said quietly. “And I am trying.”

“Because you're being an ass,” Mavros added. “Remind me—”

“Never to fall in love,” I muttered. “Truly, don't.”

“Imriel.” Amarante sighed. “Believe it or not, I am trying to help. You need time apart, sooner rather than later. You need to treat the wedding vows you made with respect, or recant them and make atonement.”

“I know,” I said. “I know, I know!”

“Then do it,” she said simply.

“Hear, hear,” Mavros added.

I raised my head to glare at him. “Why do you care?”

“Oh, mayhap because the honor of House Shahrizai is at stake.” He prodded my legs with one booted toe. “Family is family. It works both ways, cousin. If you wanted to bring this whole mess crashing down on your heads a-purpose, most of us would stand by you. But it seems the young lady has chosen a wiser course, and I'd rather see her wishes honored for all our sakes.” Mavros rubbed his chin. “Strong-willed little minx, isn't she?”

“So it seems,” I said shortly.

Mavros grinned at me. “You're put out. Come on, let's get you good and drunk and go to the Night Court. Trust me, it will help.” He swung himself to his feet and bowed to Amarante. “My thanks, my lady. I'll take him from here.”

She knit her brows. “Don't let him—”

“No, no.” Mavros shook his head. “I know what I'm doing.”

“All right.” Amarante hesitated. “This wasn't an easy choice for Sidonie,” she said to me. “Please don't make it harder.”

I looked away, fiddling with the book she'd given me. “This doesn't mean she wants us to wait twenty years, I hope.”

“Oh, I think one will suffice.” An unlikely lilt of humor warmed her voice. “By Naamah's grace, I hope so!”

It made me smile despite myself. “Are you that eager to be freed, my lady?”

“No.” Amarante stooped and kissed me. “Not really.”

Mavros watched her go, eyes narrowed, tapping his bottom lip in thought. “Elua's Balls! You know, I really do like that girl. That hair, that mouth. What I wouldn't give to see her on her knees, wearing nothing but a leather collar, sucking my—” He shook himself. “What a damnable waste. Whose idea was it to throw her into Sidonie's bed?”

My temples ached. “Phèdre's, I think.”

“Phèdre's!” He shot me a startled look.

“Don't ask. I don't know. She has a knack for that sort of thing.” I shoved the little book of letters inside my shirt. “Come on, let's go out.

True to his word, Mavros got me good and drunk in Night's Doorstep. When he bade the carriage-driver to take us to Valerian House, I didn't object. In a haze of wine and pent-up emotion, I was ready, filled with residual resentment and self-pity, and too drunk to care about my demons. If I couldn't have who I wanted, at least I could have what I wanted. In the receiving room, wavering on my feet, I began to tell the Dowayne my desires.

“No, no.” Mavros shook his head at me. “We're not here for that.”

I stared at him. “We're not?”

Didier Vascon, the Dowayne, bowed low. “Your private Showing awaits, my lords,” he murmured. “All has been arranged.”

“Oh,” I said foolishly. “When did you …?”

Mavros clapped a hand on my shoulder. “I have my ways. Violent pleasures and an angry heart are a deadly mixture, cousin mine, and yours is too angry by far. Betimes 'tis better to let the eyes feast until the heart is purged lest you do harm unwitting. Come and see.”

I followed, stumbling, as the Dowayne led us down hushed corridors to a private viewing chamber. It was warm and dimly lit, and hung all about with erotic tapestries. There was a small staging area with a pair of reclining couches placed before it. Four adepts waited there, still as statues. Two women, two men. One pair was from Valerian House, kneeling abeyante with lowered heads. One pair was from Mandrake House, faces hidden behind domino masks. The man held a brass-tipped flogger, thongs trailing over the top of one glossy boot. The woman held a tawse paddle with a slit down the middle. From time to time, she twitched it against her thigh. Every time she did, one of the Valerian adepts whimpered.

Mavros stretched his length on one of the couches with a luxuriant sigh, folding his hands behind his head. “A pair to attend,” he said to Didier Vascon. “Unclad, if you please. And mayhap a fortified wine?”

“Of course, my lord.” The Dowayne bowed low, beckoning with a subtle gesture.

A pair of adepts appeared, naked and unabashed. The male knelt with silent grace beside the couch where I perched uncomfortably, preferring a goblet. His eyes were downcast.

“My thanks,” I said awkwardly, accepting the wine. He flashed a quick smile.

“Name of Elua!” Mavros said tartly. “Relax, will you?”

“I'm trying.”

And much to my surprise, I did. Mavros clapped his hands, bidding the Showing to commence. The adepts in the staging area began a performance that was no less genuine for being rehearsed. We sipped our fortified wine and watched; watched as the Mandrake adept swung his flogger in an intricate rhythm, the brass tips kissing the Valerian woman's skin as she stood with her hands braced against the wall, head lowered and legs wide. Watched the male Valerian adept bend over a padded barrel, strong hands clasping his own calves. His buttocks reddened as the Mandrake dominatrice wielded the tawse, every hard slap of leather against skin making him groan. And then the adepts of Mandrake House exchanged masked glances and traded places, and it all began anew.

It was like a dance, dark and elegant, filled with gasps and sighs and soft commands. It made my throat tight with desire, my rigid phallus strain against my breeches. I glanced over at Mavros. He was smiling at the stage, heavy-lidded. One hand was idly stroking his attendant's hair. Her head bobbed above his groin, her cheeks working.

“My lord?” my attendant whispered. “If it please you?”

“All right,” I said recklessly. “Why not?”

“Thank you, my lord!” he breathed.

I closed my eyes, feeling his deft fingers unbutton my breeches. I heard him sigh with pleasure, felt his mouth descend to engulf me, skilled and eager. I listened to the crack of the flogger, the slap of the tawse, the moans and murmurs, the occasional low chuckle. I pushed away thoughts of Daršanga and thought of sunlight.

Sunlight, and tangled hair the color of honey.

And horrible, wonderful things done in the name of love.

Afterward, I felt purged and calm; calmer than I'd felt for days. Mavros had been right, and I was glad he'd done what he'd done, arranging the Showing instead of letting me indulge my worst desires. I told him so as the carriage-driver drew rein in the Palace courtyard, my head lolling on the seat.

“Yes, I know.” Mavros patted my cheek. “As I told that damnable priestess' daughter, I do know what I'm doing, cousin. At least when it comes to family.” He regarded me with worried fondness. “Elua, you look a mess! Give your lady wife my apologies. And talk to her, will you?”