Kushiel's Justice (Page 41)

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He laughed. “Come on. You've got family to meet.”

With Eamonn's aid, I made my way to the far side of the hall. It was quieter there, with chairs set about for the women, who were conversing far more peaceably than the menfolk.

Dorelei was seated beside her mother, holding her hand and smiling. The Lady Breidaia glanced up at our arrival, her eyes shining. Indeed, all of the women were beaming, including Alais, who looked fit to wriggle right out of her skin. Even Brigitta was smiling, and Conor, seated among the women with his harp on his lap, was grinning wide enough to split his face. I guessed Dorelei had told them our news.

I bowed deeply to Breidaia. “Well met, my lady. 'Tis an honor.”

Someone giggled. “Such manners!”

“Imriel is always polite,” Dorelei observed. “Except when he's not.”

Ignoring her daughter, Lady Breidaia rose and placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. She had a calm, warm presence, and I liked her immediately. “Welcome to the family, Imriel,” she said softly. “We're so very pleased.”

Alais let out a squeak. “Oh, Imri! Aren't you excited?”

I felt myself grin as foolishly as Conor. “I am, actually.”

“Why?” Eamonn looked perplexed. “I mean, you are already wed, aren't you?”

“Not that,” Brigitta said with affectionate scorn. “They're having a child.”

“Dagda Mor!” Eamonn stared at me. “You are?” I nodded, and he glanced over at Brigitta with a grin of his own. “Well, we'd best busy ourselves, hadn't we?”

At that moment, Drustan and the others entered. Those who were seated rose, and a silent hush of respect fell over the hall. Some of it was for the Cruarch of Alba, but I daresay a good deal of it was for the Master of the Straits.

And, too, for Phèdre and Joscelin.

After all, they were the ones had freed him.

Save for the bustling servants, clearing empty platters and bringing laden ones in turn, the hall was still. Drustan stood for a moment, surveying it. “My lords and ladies,” he said in his steady, commanding voice. “We are gathered to celebrate the nuptials of my sister's daughter, Dorelei mab Breidaia of the Cullach Gorrym, to Imriel nó Montrève de la Courcel of Terre d'Ange. In their honor, I pledge that for three days of the new moon, from sunrise to sunrise, this table will never stand empty. Will you join us at it?”

There were shouts and cheers, and a scuffle for seats on the long benches that lined the table, which I daresay would have been less muted if not for Hyacinthe's presence. A few places of honor for the Cruarch's family and guests were reserved at the head of the table; the rest appeared to be claimed at will.

How does one measure the length of a meal without beginning or end? We sat for hours. It was simple, hearty fare, but there was so much of it I wanted to groan. I washed it down with mead until my head was swimming and my tongue felt coated with the sweetness of fermented honey.

The Albans ate and drank ceaselessly, loud and clamorous. Many of them eschewed utensils, making do with belt knives and hands, slipping tidbits to the dogs lounging under the table. I caught Alais doing the same, having brought the wolfhound Celeste with her. Celeste looked guilty; Alais looked delighted. Somewhere I could hear Eamonn's voice raised in argument. It made me laugh, despite the fact that my head was ringing.

“Welcome to Alba, Prince Imriel.” Dorelei gave me a dimpled smile.

At the head of the table, Drustan leaned forward, his eyes crinkling with amusement. “We do have more …civilized …affairs,” he offered in a low tone. “But I thought it best if this was held in the truest Alban tradition.”

“Boundless hospitality?” I asked, remembering Firdha's teaching.

He nodded. “Indeed.”

“I think it's lovely,” Phèdre said in seemingly perfect sincerity.

Joscelin glanced sidelong at her. “You would say that.”

“I think,” Hyacinthe murmured, “that I would only endure this for your foster-son's sake, Phèdre nó Delaunay.”

I spread my hands. “Please, my lord! I beg you, don't suffer on my account.”

It was lovely, though; in a noisy, clattering, sweltering, overstuffed way. Whether the folk seated at the table were enemies or rivals outside the hall's confines, all were friends and comrades within it. Such was the blessing of the Cruarch's boundless hospitality. When everyone had eaten and drunk their fill, a good many of the platters were cleared, and fewer full ones were brought. I felt I could breathe easier. Outside, the sun must have set, for some of the contained heat in the hall began to dissipate.

Pitchers of cool water went round, followed by jugs of uisghe.

Conor mac Grainne tuned his harp and began to play. For the second time that night, everyone fell silent; this time, to listen.

In the short time since I'd last seen him, his playing had grown stronger and deeper. Before, I'd thought he was good enough to play in any D'Angeline salon. Now I thought he was better than any harpist I'd heard, save for his father. There was no magic in it; no charm. Only skill and beauty.

Conor didn't sing tonight, but on the third tune he played, Breidaia lifted her voice unexpectedly, clear and sweet. On the second verse, Sibeal joined her; and on the third, Dorelei, shy and faltering at first, settling into clarity. Their three voices rose and fell in intricate, intertwining harmonies, weaving a song like threads on the loom of Conor's harping.

When it ended, he placed his hand on the strings of his harp, stilling them.

“Elua!” Phèdre's eyes were bright with tears. “I've not heard the like since…”

“…Since the night Moiread died,” Hyacinthe finished.

“It is fitting,” Drustan said quietly. Moiread had been his youngest sister, slain in the battle for Bryn Gorrydum; Eamonn's sister Mairead was her Eiran namesake. “It is fitting that we remember past sorrows, even as we celebrate present joys. My mother would have been pleased. I would that she had lived to see this day.” He nodded toward the middle of the table, where Conor was seated. “Truly, you may claim a bard's boon of me for this night's playing, young prince of the Dalriada. May I ask one of you?”

“Of course, my lord.” A heated flush reddened Conor's cheeks.

Drustan smiled gently. “Give us another tune, lad. A merry tune, that we might end this night in gladness.”

Conor took a deep breath. “Of course, my lord!”

He played a merry tune, his thin brown fingers dancing over the strings, plucking and teasing, picking out a melody that goaded one's heart to lift and one's feet to dance, infectious and mirthful. A good many folk did rise to dance, including Phèdre, laughing, who hauled a protesting Joscelin to his feet. On and on, Conor played, his melody scaling new heights with every change of verse.

“Will you?” I asked Dorelei.

“Will you?” She flashed her dimpled smile.

So it was that we danced in the hall of Bryn Gorrydum, on the first eve of our Alban nuptials, amid strangers and loved ones alike. And when Conor at last ended his song, we were breathless and laughing, the both of us.

“The babe …?” I asked, belatedly anxious.

“The babe is fine.” Dorelei took my hand and placed it on her belly. She smiled into my eyes. “I, however, find myself growing weary.”

Glancing around the hall, I realized that a number of folk had departed. Hyacinthe and Sibeal were gone; and the Lady Breidaia, too. Joscelin was coaxing Phèdre up the stair, the two of them engaged in some private banter. Others were, it seemed, prepared to spend the night in merriment, making the most of the Cruarch's hospitality.

“To bed?” I whispered.

Dorelei's dimples deepened. “Aye.”

“Imri!” Alais, flushed and sweating, intercepted us mid-escape. She'd been dancing, too, with Talorcan. “I forgot. I've a letter for you, from Mavros.”

“Mavros!” His name seemed like somewhat from a dream I'd forgotten. I glanced at Dorelei, eager to be alone with her, and saw my own desire reflected in her eyes. “Ah, well. Surely it can wait until morning?”

“I suppose.” Alais was noncommittal. “'Tis your business. He's your cousin.”

“Tomorrow, then.” I mounted the stair, tugging at Dorelei's willing hand as she ascended with me. “Tomorrow.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

There was no time to read Mavros' letter, on the morrow or the next day. There was simply too much to be done. After a sleepy-eyed Alais delivered it to me as promised, I tucked it away in my things. After the wedding, I thought, I would read it. Until then, 'twas easier not to think of home.And to be sure, there was more serious business afoot.

For one thing, we had a long, private conference with Drustan and told him about the Maghuin Dhonn. Although he seemed somewhat distracted, he was troubled by the news.

“I'd almost rather hear they're trying to stir trouble among the Tarbh Cró again,” he muttered. “At least it's easier to understand.” Drustan sighed. “Clunderry has a strong garrison, but I'll ask Urist to select another twenty men and take command of it. He's got a good head on his shoulders, I trust him as much as anyone I've fought with. And you'll have the Lady Firdha in residence, too. Alais will be continuing her studies with her.”

“Can she—?” I gestured at my fetters of red yarn, remembering the dismissive way Aodhan had spoken of court bards.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Drustan said absently. “Whatever's needful.”

“Are you certain?” I asked. “She was unwilling to speak of the Maghuin Dhonn.”

Drustan shrugged. “Ollamhs can be overly superstitious. I'll talk to her.”

“Is everything all right, my lord?” Dorelei asked. “We didn't wish to disturb you on the eve of our nuptials, but we thought you should know.”

“Yes, of course.” The Cruarch of Alba heaved another sigh. ” 'Tis a hard piece of news Stormkeep's master gave me today, that's all. Although I imagine the responsibility will fall to your generation in the end.”

“He's chosen not to train a successor, hasn't he?” I asked.

“I thought you knew,” Drustan said wryly. “No mind, you'd have to be told sooner or later. I'll ask you to keep it silent for now. His decision won't be a popular one, and I'd rather not have it linked in people's minds with your wedding. I've not decided what to do about it.”

“Of course, my lord,” I promised, and Dorelei nodded.

“Mayhap he can be swayed,” Drustan mused. “Or at least persuaded not to destroy the Book of Raziel's pages.”

“What?” I was startled.

“Oh, yes.” His dark eyes were somber. “Master Hyacinthe is concerned that the knowledge is too dangerous, and he is minded to see it pass forever from this earth with him.” He shook his head. “I do not know the answer. It is a grave matter, and I would sooner discuss it at length. I would be willing to take the Book into my own safekeeping rather than see it destroyed.”

“You couldn't use it, you know.” I frowned. ” 'Tis writ in an alphabet no one can read.”

“I know.” Drustan looked steadily at me. “But it is a powerful tool of protection. Alba's curse has become Alba's blessing. I would not discard such a gift out of hand. It may be that one day someone could decipher it.” He smiled a little. “Your own heir, mayhap.”

Dorelei and I exchanged a glance. “I'm not so sure I'd want that,” she murmured.

Nor was I.

I thought about the way Hyacinthe sought so assiduously to protect his own children from the burdens of power, and I thought about how he'd changed over the course of our stay at the Stormkeep, seeming to grow younger and easier in his skin. I'd attributed it to Phèdre and Joscelin's presence; old friends who had known him long before he was the Master of the Straits. Doubtless that was part of it.

But part of it may have been the sheer relief of having the thing done, the decision made. He would carry his burden until the end of his days, but there it would end. For good or for ill, no one would carry it afterward.

At least if he truly meant to destroy it.

I had my doubts. I didn't know Hyacinthe well enough to guess at his thoughts, not really. But I knew Phèdre and Joscelin better than I knew anyone on the face of the earth, and it wasn't in either of their nature to do such a thing gladly. Phèdre had dedicated years of her life to the pursuit of arcane wisdom, and Joscelin was a scion of Shemhazai, whose credo was All Knowledge Is Worth Having. Whatever it was they'd been plotting over the past weeks, I was willing to bet it wasn't destroying the pages of the Book of Raziel.

I was also wise enough to keep my mouth shut on the thought.

After our meeting with Drustan, Dorelei and I were separated in accordance with Alban tradition, which had been explained to me that morning along with a great many other details. Since there were fewer of them—most of the clan-lords didn't travel with their wives—the women were sequestered in a private salon, while the men occupied the great hall.

“What do the women do there?” I asked Eamonn.

He grinned. “Talk frankly about bedchamber secrets. They're all very excited about having Phèdre among them.”

“I don't doubt it.” I laughed. “And what do we do?”

“Eat, drink, brag about women, and get into fights,” he said cheerfully. “Like as not, you'll get at least one challenge tonight.”