Kushiel's Justice (Page 31)

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His flush deepened, but he nodded again and began to play an Eiran ballad, singing in a low voice.

He was good; good enough to play in any salon in Terre d'Ange. Although he sat hunched over his harp, his thin fingers plucked at the strings with graceful precision and the harp's tone rang out pure and sweet. Gradually, as he played, he sat straighter in the chair. His voice was rough with adolescence, but it held true.

“That was lovely,” Phèdre said when he finished, smiling at him. “Thank you.”

Conor turned beet-red.

“My musical child,” Grainne said fondly. “A gift of his father's.”

“You should play together.” Under the table, Eamonn nudged my foot. “Imri's been practicing on the flute this whole way. He's not bad. Go on, go fetch your flute.”

“Later, mayhap,” I demurred. “You lot must be weary of it.”

“I'm not.” Conor looked directly at me for the first time. “I'd like it very much, Prince Imriel.”

“All right.” I raised my brows. “Will you promise to call me Imriel, Prince Conor?”

He smiled and flushed yet again. “I will.”

Elua, I remembered that age! Awkwardness and embarrassment at every turn. Colts' Years, Joscelin said they called it in the Cassiline Brotherhood.

I fetched Hugues' flute and put on a solemn face. “Now, this is a D'Angeline song for very special occasions. On our journey, we translated it into Eiran to honor all of you. I'll play the first verse, and mayhap my lady wife will do the honor of singing for us?” I glanced sidelong at Dorelei, who looked bemused.

As soon as I blew the first few notes, she laughed. I played the song about the little brown goat and Dorelei sang along. Everyone laughed, hearing the verses. Conor grinned, his dark eyes sparkling. At the second verse, he joined us, playing a merry, lively accompaniment. His fingers danced over the strings, embellishing the simple child's melody in ways I'd never imagined.

“Very nice!” Eamonn applauded.

“You see it's true,” Brennan said smugly. “He only needed hear it once.”

“Indeed.” I lowered the flute, then paused. “Conor, if I played a tune for you, could you tell me if you'd heard it before?”

He nodded. “Yes, of course.”

I'd only played the opening measure of the mysterious piper's tune that haunted my nights when Conor turned ashen-pale.

“No!” he said violently. ” 'Tis no tune I've ever heard.”

“Conor!” his mother said in surprise. “That's no call to be rude.”

“Sorry.” He mumbled the apology, then rose abruptly and set his lap-harp on the table. “I've got to be gone. Sorry.”

I watched him leave, his narrow shoulders hunched and taut. “Did I offend him somehow, my lady?”

“No.” Grainne sighed. “He's a broody lad, my youngest. He's been prone to odd fits these last few years. Pay him no heed, he'll come around.”

Eamonn nudged me again. “Mayhap you could talk to him, Imri. You know a thing or two about brooding.”

“I'll do that,” I said, ignoring the jibe.

After Conor's precipitous departure, the conversation turned to bears. Unlike his sister, Brennan's scouting party had encountered bear signs; tracks that led from a crofter's pasture into the edge of the forest. There, in the soft loam, they simply ended.

“Made my hair stand on end, it did.” Brennan rubbed the back of his neck, remembering. “It's them, sure enough.”

“What do the “Wise Ones want with us?” Eamonn asked, puzzled.

“You're the one toting cart-loads of wisdom this way,” his older brother retorted. “Mayhap they don't like its flavor.”

Eamonn looked at his mother. “Do you think it's true?”

“I don't know.” Grainne's face was troubled. “The Dalriada have enjoyed a long truce with the Old Ones.” She glanced involuntarily toward the door. “If they are wroth for this cause or some other, I hope they would speak openly to me.”

“You mean you truly do deal with them?” Dorelei asked, startled.

“I do,” the Lady of the Dalriada said firmly. “There are two sides to every story, young Cruithne. Even theirs. And if the Old Ones hunger, I do not begrudge them a few cattle. Much that was theirs has been lost to them.”

“So you don't reckon them malevolent?” I asked.

“Malevolent?” Grainne gave me a curious look. “No. Capricious, yes, but not malevolent.” She shook her head. “But this is a joyous occasion. Let us speak of more pleasant matters. Tell me,” she asked Eamonn with a smile. “How did you find your father? Is he well?”

Thus, the moment passed.

I wanted to hear more about the Maghuin Dhonn and mayhap discuss my own experiences, but the Lady Grainne had made her wishes clear, and I reckoned it could wait. I was beginning to think she might be the best person to discuss this with, since she seemed to know more about the Maghuin Dhonn than anyone else had thus far admitted. And if it was bear-witches haunting me, whatever it was they wanted, they'd made no move to reveal themselves during our long journey across Alba. Now that we were ensconced in the hall of Innisclan itself, I doubted that would change.

In that, I was mistaken.

That night, Dorelei and I made love in the narrow bed we shared in our tiny chamber, forgetting all notion of serious conversation. There had been uisghe served by the end of the evening, and we were both a little drunk and ardent, laughing over the contortions required to keep from falling off the bed. It was sweet and foolish and pleasant, and I fell asleep afterward untouched by melancholy, with no piper's tune or woman's laughter echoing in my dreams.

I did dream, though.

I dreamed of making love to Sidonie.

It was a vivid, piercing dream, more intense by far than the memories I'd indulged in the other night. I could feel her, taste her, hear her voice in my ear. It shocked me into unwelcome wakefulness, groaning with regret and unfulfilled desire as the strands of the dream slipped through the fingers of my awareness. My rigid phallus ached, and so did my heart.

Pipes, and a woman's laughter.

“Come here.”

The words tied a knot around my will and drew me. At times I'd felt what it was like to stand outside myself and see into another person; to see the good and bad in them, the fault-lines on their soul. I had seen how cruelty could be used, and chosen not to use it. Now it was as though I stood outside myself and watched me, helpless and dismayed.

Without the slightest intent of doing so, I rose in silence, donning my clothes. I left my sword-belt where it lay. The piper's tune beckoned, filled with yearning and promise. I glanced at Dorelei, sleeping peacefully. I left our bedchamber.

The great hall of Innisclan was quiet and mostly empty. A few of the Lady's men were sleeping there; guards, drunk on uisghe. I passed them by. My feet moved with no conscious volition. I didn't want to go wherever I was going. I just…did.

In a distant part of my awareness, with every step, I felt certain I would stop. I meant to stop. And when I didn't, the distant part of me thought I would open my mouth and cry out for help. One shout would wake the household. One shout would bring Joscelin from the bedchamber he shared with Phèdre, sword at the ready.

And I just…didn't.

Instead, I kept walking. I didn't want to, but I did. As though I moved in a waking dream, I followed the summons, followed the tug on my heart, followed the piper's tune. Somewhere inside, I was shivering with fear, but I couldn't stop. I unbarred the door and walked into the night. There was a full moon, small and distant, silvering the Alban landscape. And there, beneath it, was a small, distant figure.

A woman.

I walked toward her. She stood beside one of the low stone fences. I saw moonlight glint on the silver pipe she lowered from her lips as I drew near. Whatever charm bound me, it eased somewhat as the melody faded. I took a sharp breath and came back to myself, smelling loam and musk and fermented berries, feeling fear give way to anger.

“Lady.” The word emerged, harsh and raw. “Who are you?”

The woman peered at me. She was small and dark, with coarse black hair and pale, pale eyes. Her cheekbones were high and broad and there were marks on her face; woad tattoos. A pair of claws bracketed her eyes. “You may call me Morwen.”

“Morwen.” I clenched my fists. “What do you want of me?”

“I'm not sure yet.” She studied me. “You were careless, you know.”

I shook my head. “You speak in riddles.”

“Often, yes.” Morwen smiled. With one hand, she stroked a leather bag that hung about her neck on a thong. A bolt of desire shot through me, so acute it weakened my knees. She regarded me with amusement. “We were curious and a bit afraid. Your marriage is a portent of change. I've been following you. Have you not heard me? And then you dreamed of love and spilled your seed on taisgaidh soil for anyone to find.” She reached into the leather bag and withdrew an object; a crude mannekin formed of soil and clay. She showed it to me, then replaced it in the bag. “That was careless.”

I gritted my teeth. “What have you done, lady?”

“Oh, I've bound you with your own desires.” A frown creased her brow. “I mean no harm by it. We are not sure, any of us, what is the best course. Not even Berlik. We cannot untangle the threads to see past the gates into the future, not yet. But this, at least, I have done.”

She stroked the leather bag.

I groaned.

“Will you make love to me?” Morwen inquired. “You want to, don't you?

“No.” I glared at her. “Not you.”

She laughed. It was the laughter that had haunted my dreams. Not Sidonie's; not the laughter that had turned my world upside down. But her fingers stroked the leather bag that contained my seed mixed with Alban soil, and all I could do was groan.

“I could make you want me,” Morwen said. “Mayhap that would change things.”

I bowed my head. “Duzhmata,” I whispered. “Duzhûshta, duzhvarshta.”

Ill thought, ill words, ill deeds.

The shackles of desire loosened, held at bay by the spectre of Daršanga. It seemed the lesson of Bryony House had not been useless after all. Breathing raggedly, I glanced at Morwen. Her lips were parted in surprise.

“Interesting,” she said mildly. “D'Angeline magic?”

I gave a bitter laugh. “Hardly. Why are you doing this?”

Morwen tilted her head. “Curiosity.” She took a step closer to me, peering at my face once more with those odd, moon-pale eyes held between raking tattooed claws. “We are a very old people, D'Angeline, and you are a very young one. Your coming may be a tide we cannot stop; or it may not. We have held Alba for a long, long time.”

“The Maghuin Dhonn?” I said. “Not for centuries, I hear.”

She reached up to stroke my cheek with one hand, tightening her grasp on the leather bag with the other when I sought to jerk away from her touch. Her fingers smelled of musk and berries. “Oh, yes. We hold the secret heart of Alba. All those places sacred to the Cruithne, to the Dalriada; ours, first.”

“Until you sacrificed your diadh-anam” I hazarded.

“That is a lie.” Her fingers curved. I felt the prick of heavy claws against my skin, and then they withdrew. Morwen stood. “Are you brave?” she wondered. “Or merely foolhardy?”

I closed my eyes. “Tired, mostly.”

“Poor boy.” She laughed and stroked the leather bag, and a rill of unwelcome desire ran through me. “You shouldn't want so badly. These bonds are of your own making. I merely tied the knot.”

Behind my closed eyes, I evoked another memory. Sidonie, standing in a shaft of sunlight in Amarante's bedchamber. Her unguarded smile when she turned to see me; her laughter when I bowed and greeted her as the Sun Princess. My heart, expanding with unexpected joy. “You should be wary about tangling with D'Angelines in matters of love, lady,” I said to Morwen, opening my eyes. “Blessed Elua does not like it.”

“This is not his place,” she said simply.

“True,” I said. “But I am his scion, and Kushiel's, too.”

We regarded one another. “I will go now.” Morwen tapped the leather bag. “You will not be harmed, not here on the Lady Grainne's holdings. But I think that Alba, old Alba, does not want you here. If you are wise, you will go. Go back to your Terre d'Ange and your Elua and your love.”

“Lady, I would like nothing better,” I said grimly.

She shrugged. “So, go.”

As I opened my mouth to reply, a cloud passed over the moon. Shadows moved like fog and the pale glint of Morwen's eyes winked out. Something large and heavy moved in the darkness, snuffling, its tread heavy enough to make the earth tremble. My skin prickled all over and I shook myself like a horse freed from the harness, all vestiges of desire gone.

The cloud passed.

Nothing was there.

I swore, long and hard. And then I made my way back to the hall. When a dim figure stepped out of the shadow of the doorway, I grabbed unthinking for the hilt of my absent sword, then set myself to fight unarmed, every muscle tensed and ready.

“Prince Imriel!” A low boy's voice. “It's only me.”

“Conor.” I lowered my clenched fists. “Ah, yes. The lad who'd never heard the tune I played.”

He shivered, although it wasn't cold. “You saw her, didn't you?”

“I did.” I eyed him wryly. “Is the lady a friend of yours?”