Kushiel's Justice (Page 43)

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She smiled, dimpled. “More eating and drinking. What else?”

There was a special horse-litter waiting to carry us back to the fortress for the third and final day of celebration. It was a open affair with a low railing, draped with fine-combed red wool and strewn with cushions, slung fore and aft between a pair of perfectly matched white horses; a gift, I learned later, from the Lady of the Dalriada.

Once our procession was under way, many of the watching commonfolk approached to touch the hanging drapery and partake in the blessings the ollamhs had invoked for us. Despite the lead rider's best efforts to set a slow, even pace, the litter lurched and swayed somewhat fierce. Dorelei and I laughed breathlessly and clutched at one another, fearful of being pitched overboard.

Some distance from the edge of the park, it stopped.

I didn't know why, not at first. I only knew a tense hush fell over the procession. The commonfolk around us vanished, melting away unobtrusively.

And then I saw the Maghuin Dhonn.

Berlik in his bearskin robe, I knew; and Morwen and Ferghus. There were a score of others with them, men and women alike. Aside from Berlik and Morwen with their mist-colored eyes, they were all as dark as the Cruithne, only marked with a strange, wild air and a different angle to the planes of their faces. They stood quiet and motionless in their roughspun clothes, watching and waiting. None of them appeared armed, although Ferghus had his harp over his shoulder. I didn't see the leather bag around Morwen's neck, and guessed it was hidden away once more.

Drustan rode forward, his face impassive. “You are not welcome here.”

“It is taisgaidh land, Cruarch.” Berlik's voice was as I remembered, like something emerging from the deep, hollow places of the earth. “Will you profane the old ways?”

Drustan ignored the question. “What do you want?”

Berlik's pale, somber gaze rested on Dorelei and me. I felt her shiver violently at my side. “Not all of the diadh-anams of Alba have been invoked this day. We come to offer the blessing of the Maghuin Dhonn upon this union. Do you refuse it?”

I was silent, not knowing how to answer.

“We do.” Dorelei's voice was unexpectedly forceful. “There is a shadow on you, my lord; on all of you. I wish no part of it.”

Berlik inclined his head slightly. “There is darkness in all of us, lady; even in the heart of Alba. It is not wise to ignore it.”

“Is that a threat?” Drustan asked sharply.

The Maghuin Dhonn looked steadily at him. “No, Cruarch. It is a truth.”

Although the skies were clear, somewhere in the distance there was an ominous rumble of thunder. Hyacinthe, seated atop a bay gelding, was still and silent, but there was no trace of the merry Tsingano lad about him now; only the Master of the Straits. The mantle of power clung to him as clearly as Berlik's bearskin robe, and infinitely more dangerous.

The weary lines etched on Berlik's face deepened.

“So,” he said to Hyacinthe. “You too, magician?” Hyacinthe made no answer. Berlik sighed. “We are few,” he said, addressing his words to all of us. “We are ancient, and we are few. The old blood runs true in very few of us, now. But we have been Alba's caretakers for a long, long time. The future narrows. Much that we have preserved lies in jeopardy. Remember that we made this offer.”

With that, Berlik bowed, his robe rippling around him, then turned and began walking westward across the park. All of his folk followed, wordless. Only the harpist Ferghus sent a parting glance in our direction, and that was at his son Conor, riding at Eamonn's side. Conor averted his eyes, not meeting his father's gaze. Outside of Innisclan, no one knew his paternity.

“Talorcan.” Drustan beckoned. “Take as many men as you can muster and follow them. Once they leave sacred ground, ensure they depart the city.”

“Aye, my lord.” Talorcan hesitated. “Do you wish us to engage them?”

Drustan gave a hard smile. “If they give you just cause, yes. But I will not defile the wedding day of my sister's daughter by breaking the rule of law.”

Talorcan made him a left-handed salute. “Aye, my lord.”

Thus we were a far smaller party that returned to Bryn Gorrydum's fortress, and the mood was chastened and somber. Although the Cruarch's table of endless bounty was groaning and laden again, for once, no one had the heart to tackle it properly. Instead, there was a good deal of muttered speculation about what they wanted.

I wondered, too.

Elua help me, I believed Berlik's offer had been sincere; as sincere as his oath. I only wished it wasn't all cloaked in mystery and portent. I intended Alba no ill; indeed, I'd grown fond of the land. If the Maghuin Dhonn beheld some dire future approaching in which I inadvertently did great harm, I wished they'd simply tell me. Mayhap there was somewhat to be done about it.

It wasn't long before Talorcan and his men returned, empty-handed and grumbling. The Maghuin Dhonn had proceeded beyond the borders of the city and vanished into taisgaidh land; truly vanishing, leaving no tracks.

“I wish this hadn't happened today,” Dorelei murmured unhappily.

“So do I, love.” My gaze fell on Conor, quiet and withdrawn. No doubt he was troubled, too, albeit for different reasons. I snapped my fingers. “Conor! Conor mac Grainne, did you not promise to play at my wedding?”

The boy raised his head. “You're sure?”

“I am,” I said. “Charm us, lad.”

His eyes widened at my choice of words, but he reached for his harp and began to play. At first his fingers faltered on the strings, but slowly they gained in steadiness. A tune emerged, sweet and stately and compelling.

Whether or not there was magic in it, I couldn't have said; not for a surety. If there was, I was bound against it. But I watched while everyone gathered fell silent to listen, smiling dreamily, and I thought there was. Conor played like a man trying to scale a mountain or lift a heavy boulder, his eyes closed in concentration, his coarse black hair plastered to his damp brow. But slowly, slowly, the mood in the great hall of Bryn Gorrydum shifted.

When he finally ceased, there were cheers.

“To my brother!” Eamonn shouted, getting to his feet. “The finest harpist in seven generations of the Dalriada!” He hoisted a goblet of mead. “To Imri, the best friend a man could ask for, and to Dorelei, who nonetheless deserves better!”

Laughter.

Cheers.

It wasn't perfect, not quite. I daresay nothing ever is. But it salvaged the day. Worries over the Maghuin Dhonn were set aside in favor of celebration. There was eating and drinking; there were innumerable toasts. There were harmless quarrels and arguments, and jests about my pretty face, which Dorelei endured, blushing. Conor played quietly throughout the evening, his dark eyes closed, spiky lashes splayed on his broad cheekbones, stitching together a melody that interwove past and present and future alike.

Along the way, day gave way to night, and night wore on into the small hours of morning. One by one, celebrants peeled away, staggering off to their chambers. Some, like Hyacinthe and Sibeal and Drustan, departed early. Others stayed longer.

When Phèdre and Joscelin bade us good night, she cupped my face in her hands, gazing up at me. She seemed so small to me now, and vulnerable; the scarlet mote of Kushiel's Dart floating on her dark iris. Once, it would have disturbed me to my core. Now it didn't.

I daresay she knew. She always knew.

“You seem…happy, love.” She smiled ruefully. “Despite everything.”

“I am,” I said honestly. “Despite everything, I am.”

Joscelin cleared his throat and nodded at Dorelei, slumped over the table and sleeping peaceably, her head pillowed on one arm. His summer-blue eyes glinted. “You might want to look to your lady wife.”

“I will,” I promised.

Once they had gone, I tried to wake Dorelei, who murmured in protest. So I scooped her into my arms. She nestled her warm brown cheek against my bare chest as I mounted the stairs, ignoring the ribald jests from below.

“Imriel,” she whispered. “I do love you.”

“I know.” I kissed her brow. “So do I.”

“You don't.” One hand scrabbled at my chest, then fell limp, dangling. “Not really.”

“I do,” I avowed. “As best I can, and a bit more beside.”

Our bedchamber was decorated with shriveled flower petals and the lamps were burning low. I laid Dorelei gently on our nuptial bed and eased her out of her kirtle. She heaved a great sigh, curling onto her side, one hand resting on her lower belly. It had begun to evince a bulge, only the tiniest bit. I drew the blankets over her and laid down beside her.

And there I lay.

And lay.

I was awake; I was wide awake. I listened to Dorelei's soft, rhythmic breathing. I listened to the sounds of the fortress settling into slumber. The last of the straggling celebrants quieting; the last of the Cruarch's servants clearing the detritus of our nuptials.

At last I gave up and rose.

I pulled on my breeches and retrieved Mavros' letter, padding barefoot and bare-chested down to the great hall, where the torches yet smoldered. A good many Albans were strewn about, snoring hard.

I cracked open the seal of House Shahrizai and read.

Mavros had penned a brief letter, lighthearted and typical, filled with snippets of idle gossip. It was only a cover, an excuse to send a letter from Sidonie, written in Caerdicci for discretion's sake. I'd known, I suppose; or at least suspected. I just hadn't allowed myself to think on it.

I skimmed her opening words and felt nothing.

No; not true.

I felt, for the first time in weeks, my bindings itch and constrict. Somewhere, I was aware of a vague, distant pain, but it was as if it belonged to someone else. I scratched my wrists and my ankles, shifting the letter that the torchlight might fall more fully on it. I read Sidonie's opening words again.

The croonie-stone around my neck felt hot and heavy, entangled with the golden tore. I ran one finger beneath the leather thong to free it, sweating. It came free so easily; so easily. Almost without thinking, I ducked my chin and yanked. The leather thong stretched. I hauled it over my head, scraping my cheeks and ears.

I didn't feel any different, only mildly shocked at my own impulsive actions and aware that my heart was beating faster. I held the polished croonie-stone in my hand, staring at it. Already, it felt cooler and lighter. I strained my ears, listening for the sound of pipes, for Morwen's laughter. There was nothing. The Maghuin Dhonn had left the city, had gone far away. At the moment, I was safe.

Surely, I thought, for a few minutes, there was no harm in this.

I read the beginning of Sidonie's letter for a third time.

Dear Imriel,

You may laugh if you like, but I have wasted several costly sheets of paper trying to find the words to write to you in a manner befitting the correspondence of Remuel L'Oragen and Claire LeDoux. Like as not, I would still be trying if Amarante had not finally observed with some asperity that I have never been given to poetic sentimentality, and there is no reason to suppose that would change just because I miss you. I do believe I was beginning to irk her, which is no small feat.

So if you are expecting a paean celebrating everything from the drowning-pools of your eyes to the sinewed arches of your feet, lingering over the veined glory of love's throbbing scepter, you will be disappointed.

But I do miss you, and it is an ache that never goes away. Life continues, day by day. I pretend to be someone I am not, wearing my self like a mask, stretched over the aching void that is your absence in my life. I miss you. Waking, sleeping, eating, riding, talking, breathing; I miss you. It is a simple, constant fact of my existence. The fact that I hate and resent it makes not the slightest difference at all. I miss you.

It struck me like a punch to the belly. There in the Cruarch's hall, surrounded by slumbering Albans, my throat constricted and I caught my breath in a gasp that was half laugh, half sob. The dam of my heart had cracked, and the torrent of emotion threatened to drown me. Love, desire, tenderness, humor; even the sweet mercy of gentle cruelty. It was all there, all bound up in an inextricable knot. All alive and immediate and insistent, and wonderfully, horribly poignant.

And ah, Elua! For the first time I knew beyond question that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Sidonie de la Courcel.

I sat there for a long time, reading and rereading her letter in its entirety, the croonie-stone in my hand, laughing quietly to myself, tears in my eyes. I could have read it over for hours. All too vividly, I could picture Sidonie writing it; the expression on her face, hovering between self-mockery and earnestness. She wrote quickly and neatly, each letter of each word formed with swift, exacting precision. For no reason at all, that fact made my heart swell and ache.

I loved her.

And upstairs, my twice-wed wife was sleeping, our child growing inside her.

And I loved her, too.

I hadn't lied to Dorelei. It wasn't the same, it wasn't anywhere near the same. And yet even now I felt it. I read Sidonie's letter for the dozenth time, lingering over it. And then I bowed my head and prayed to Blessed Elua, holding the leather thong on which the croonie-stone was strung in both hands. Swiftly, fearful that hesitation would weaken my resolve, I forced it over my head.

Stone clinked against gold, settling against my throat.

My feelings dimmed.

My bonds itched and burned.

Elbows propped on the Cruarch's table, I rested my head in my hands and breathed slowly willing everything to subside.

And slowly, slowly, it did.

It was still there, walled away. Nothing had changed. Nothing would change. Until the day I died, by whatever unfathomable forces govern the mortal heart, I would adore my cool, haughty, funny, passionate, surprising cousin Sidonie beyond all reason.