Kushiel's Justice (Page 29)

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“It was a gift, a gift given me for a purpose.” She turned a troubled gaze on him. “An ancient wrong was redressed. 'Tis a different matter if one speaks of Hyacinthe choosing a successor so that Alba may continue to guard its shores.”

“True.” He stroked her hair. “Mayhap there are other wrongs to set right.”

She smiled reluctantly. “I'd sooner there weren't.”

“I think it should end,” Eamonn said firmly. “Lady Phèdre is right, it is too much power for one person to wield. If a sovereign becomes a tyrant, the people may rise up and overthrow him. What would happen if the Master of the Straits chose his successor poorly? Who could stand against him?”

“Is it worth leaving Alba undefended?” Dorelei asked. “Surely, Master Hyacinthe would choose wisely in such a grave matter.”

“And if he does not?” Brigitta asked, choosing her words with care. She was able to follow our conversations as long as we didn't go too swiftly, and preferred that we spoke Eiran or Cruithne to afford her the practice. “Or the next time, or the next? One day, Alba is maybe tyrant, bad tyrant. Like Tiberium.” She shrugged. “Like Waldemar Selig tries. In Skaldi, he is a great man. You all make me think, maybe not. One day, it may be the same in Alba. Sea goes everywhere, rule all the seas. Everyone obeys.”

It made me smile to imagine tiny Alba ruling the world. And yet mayhap it wasn't so strange. Tiberium was only a city, and yet its empire had encompassed the whole of the Caerdicci peninsula, all of Terre d'Ange, large tracts of Aragonia and Skaldia. It had even reached Alba's shores.

Not so strange at all, really.

“Well, he couldn't rule all the seas,” Joscelin said logically. “Hyacinthe's power has limits, does it not? And he cannot be vigilant in all places all the time.”

“A hundred leagues times three,” Phèdre murmured. “And his sea-mirror is blind beyond the lands whose coasts border his demesne. Still…”

“Maybe he teach others,” Brigitta suggested. “Masters take students.”

“A plague of Hyacinthes,” Joscelin mused.

No one laughed. Phèdre accorded Brigitta a look of deep respect. “You make very good points, my lady. Every day, I comprehend more and more why Prince Eamonn was willing to risk so much to win your hand.”

Brigitta smiled shyly. “Old enemies, new friends.”

The journey wasn't always easy. The taisgaidh paths led us along a pass through low mountains where the ground was covered with a loose scree that made our mounts and the wagon-mules lose their footing. Betimes the wagons got stuck and had to be pushed free. It rained a good deal more than I was used to. Twice, we risked losing our way in a mist so dense we could have ridden within three yards of a marker without seeing it. When that happened, Urist simply called a halt, and we waited for the mist to lift.

We were travelling without attendants, without many luxuries, having reckoned the burden of added baggage and personnel would outweigh the benefits. It hadn't surprised Eamonn that Dorelei found it no hardship; Alban royalty don't live pampered lives. Phèdre surprised him, though.

He said as much one afternoon when the drizzle had turned to a steady rain, heavy enough that we'd all donned our cloaks.

I laughed at him. “You've no idea, do you?”

Eamonn blinked, rain dripping from the hood of his cloak. “What do you mean?”

“In Jebe-Barkal during the rainy season,” I said, “the rain falls so hard it's like standing under a bucket. The mire is so deep, betimes our pack-donkeys sank to their hocks. Everything rots. The horses get saddle-sores. And when it doesn't rain, there are blood-flies. They lay eggs in the open sores. You have to pick them out, or the wounds will grow and fester.” I raised one hand, wriggling my fingers. “That was our job, Phèdre's and mine. We were the best at it because we had the smallest fingers.”

“Truly?” Eamonn glanced dubiously at Phèdre, riding ahead of us.

“Truly,” I assured him.

Other than rain, mist, and the occasional benign sighting of other travellers, our journey was uneventful. I had no more dreams of bears that woke me in the middle of the night and sent me plunging out of our tent, half naked, sword in hand. I had no dreams at all, not that I remembered. But betimes when I hovered on the verge of sleep, I thought I heard the other thing: pipes, and a woman's laughter.

And yet when I wrenched myself back to wakefulness, there was nothing.

Only silence.

When I asked Dorelei if she'd heard anything peculiar in the night, she only gave me a worried, puzzled look and shook her head. And so I concluded it had to be my mind playing tricks on me. It made sense, I suppose. I'd been playing Hugues' flute, remembering the goat-pipes of my childhood. And a woman's laughter …ah, well. There was no mystery there, only another painful memory to bury.

Except that I'd never heard the tune the piper played before in my life.

And the laughter wasn't Sidonie's.

Well, and so. The human mind is a strange place, filled with endless vagaries. I was Elua's scion as well as Kushiel's, and I had transgressed against his sacred precept. I had turned my back on love, at least for the time. Somewhere deep inside in my heart, I felt guilt at it. Small wonder my mind was concocting phantoms. Since there was naught to be done about it, I endured it and hoped it would pass.

Still, it made my skin prickle.

On the tenth day of our journey, we reached the outskirts of the Dalriada's holdings. After the low mountains, the land was once more green and lush. Eamonn breathed deeply of the air, filling his lungs.

“Do you smell it?” he exulted. “Home!”

It smelled much the same to me as anywhere else in Alba, but I made no comment. I knew too well what it was like to return home after long absence and great travail.

We made camp that day in a meadow alongside a beech forest; earlier than was our wont, at Eamonn's insistence. He chose the site himself with great care, acting mysterious. When I asked him why, he laughed and went to speak with Urist without answering. I saw the dour Cruithne grin unexpectedly and nod, and Eamonn returned.

“Come and see,” he said. “All of you.”

Holding Brigitta's hand, he led us into the forest. The sun was still some distance above the horizon and the slanting light filtered greenly through the trees. It was an old, old wood with a high canopy, and little grew beneath it save dense moss covering the rocks and boulders that dotted the ground. Eamonn picked his way as though there were a discernible path, periodically glancing overhead. The second time he did, Phèdre pointed in the direction of his gaze, and I saw a faded hank of red thread tied to a branch.

Presently, we heard the faint trickling of water. It was a quiet sound, and it made me realize we'd all been walking silent and hushed. “There,” Eamonn whispered, pointing. He smiled at Brigitta. “Brigid's Well. A sacred place belonging to your sacred namesake. You see it is true? We share long-ago roots.”

Near the base of a large tree decorated with more red thread, a stone dolmen had been erected. It was shaggy with moss, and a dark aperture lay in its shadow. Water seeped out between the rocks around it, a dozen gleaming trickles gathering to form a streamlet that wandered a few yards before vanishing in the damp soil.

“What do I do?” Brigitta whispered back.

“Here.” Eamonn went forward and knelt before the dolmen. He offered a prayer to the goddess Brigid and invoked her blessing on his wife and friends, then dipped one cupped hand into the aperture. It came out dripping. He beckoned to Brigitta. “Drink.”

She knelt beside him, sipping from his broad, cupped palm. Her eyes brightened with surprise. “It's sweet!”

Eamonn grinned. “Like you, my heart.” He drank the rest, then drew a crumbled oatcake from the pouch on his belt, setting it atop the dolmen. “Now the rest of you.”

“We brought no offering,” Phèdre protested.

“There is no need.” He shook his head. “You are my guests in this land.”

Joscelin approached the dolmen and knelt with his usual economical grace. He bowed his head, offering a silent prayer, then drew a cupped handful of water from the darkness. Phèdre joined him and they both drank, smiling at one another.

And then it was my turn.

I knelt before the dolmen and spoke a simple prayer the ollamh had taught me. “Good goddess, we thank you for your bounty and honor your ways,” I murmured, dipping my hand into the hidden spring. The water was colder than I'd expected. And I'd expected it to have a mineral odor, but it didn't. It smelled clean and sweet, like berries. Dorelei came forward to kneel beside me, steadying my hand against her lips to drink from it. She, too, smiled at the water's taste.

I smiled back at her and drank.

Foulness filled my mouth, sharp and shocking. It tasted of leaf-mold and rot and berries, yes, but fermented berries turned rank and rancid. I nearly gagged. My head jerked back in shock, and I saw my own shocked reflection in Dorelei's eyes. I swallowed convulsively, fighting another impulse to gag.

“What is it?” she asked in alarm.

“Imri?” Eamonn echoed her, his joy giving way to concern.

I couldn't bring myself to spoil his pleasure. Whatever the matter was, clearly it was me and not Brigid's Well. The water had tasted sweet to everyone else. “Cold.” I gritted the word out. “Sore tooth, that's all.”

In the back of my mind, I heard an echo of a woman's laughter.

“Oh, aye.” He relaxed. “We'll be at Innisclan tomorrow. My old nurse will make you a poultice for it.”

“My thanks.” I got to my feet. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a wiry clump of brownish hair caught on the bark of the giant beech. My thoughts flashed back to the warning lessons of my childhood in the mountains. Bear sign. I blinked. No. It was only a knot of red thread, tangled and faded, dangling from a branch.

A shiver ran over my skin.

Truly, I was losing my wits.

On the way back to camp, I wanted to spit over and over to get that taste out of my mouth. I didn't, though. I kept my mouth shut on it. In time it faded until it was merely cloying, and then somewhat that hovered betwixt unpleasant and tolerable. Dorelei shot me sidelong glances, wondering. Alone among our company, she'd seen my face when I drank. She didn't believe my tale of a toothache.

By the time we returned to camp, the sun was growing low. Around the campfire, they were calling for us to join them and dine. Dorelei hesitated when Eamonn and the others went forward.

“Imriel.” She tilted her head. “What happened there at the spring?”

“I'm not sure.” I touched her cheek. “Somewhat strange. A trick of sorts, mayhap. I don't want to ruin Eamonn's homecoming. I'll tell you about it when we're alone tonight, and you can give me your thoughts. All right?”

Dorelei nodded. “Of course.”

No one else had noticed aught amiss. The mood was cheerful. At Eamonn's request, I played my flute after we'd all dined. As the sun sank below the horizon, I played the familiar songs we'd sung on our journey, finding I'd grown proficient at them. Dredging my memory, I essayed a lively, skirling tune I'd heard aboard the Aeolia, the ship that had borne me home to Terre d'Ange after the siege of Lucca.

It seemed fitting, and I don't think I acquitted myself too badly. I couldn't remember the words that Captain Oppius' sailors had sung, but it didn't matter. It was a merry tune, designed to set hands to clapping and feet to stamping.

The sound of our merriment drowned out the drumming of approaching hoofbeats. It wasn't until we heard shouts from the sentries that we realized we weren't alone. Joscelin was on his feet in a heartbeat, sword drawn, and Eamonn and I right behind him. Brigitta drew a wicked-looking dagger, and Dorelei retrieved her hunting bow. Only Phèdre remained calm and seated, cocking her head to listen to the exchange of hails.

“Friends, it seems,” she observed.

It was a party of a dozen or so riders, their figures vague in the twilight. One of them detached from the rest, riding toward us. Eamonn squinted. “Mairead?” he called, then raised his voice to a bellow. “Mairead!”

There was a wordless whoop in reply. Horse and rider charged into our midst, scattering all of us. I caught an impression of a woman's face, a wild mane of ruddy-gold hair, firelight gleaming on the horse's flanks as it planted a rear hoof dangerously near our campfire.

“Eamonn!” The rider dismounted with careless aplomb, flinging both arms around his neck and kissing him. “You're home!”

“Mairead, girl!” Eamonn hugged her as though he meant to crack her ribs. “What are you doing here?”

The riderless horse was turning in excited circles, adding to the mayhem. Brigitta was scowling, fingering the hilt of her dagger. I caught the horse's reins and led it safely to one side. “Don't worry,” I said to Brigitta. “I've a strong suspicion that's not an old lover.”

Her scowl eased. “Sister?”

I nodded at the pair of them, tall and loud and exuberant. “What do you think?”

Indeed, so it proved. After the initial exchange of greetings, Eamonn called us over to introduce us to Mairead, the elder of his two younger sisters. She was tall and rangy, with an open, friendly face that bore a smattering of golden freckles and a grin to match Eamonn's.

I liked her immediately; I daresay all of us did. Even Brigitta smiled when Mairead embraced her with uninhibited warmth. “You're the one!” Mairead exclaimed. “Oh, sister! You've no idea how long we've been waiting to meet you!”