Kushiel's Justice (Page 45)

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He looked at me for a long moment. “I think I do begin to understand.”

“Good,” I said. “Mayhap you can explain it to me one day.”

So it was done, and I felt at once glad and guilty. The packet of letters was hidden away in Joscelin and Phèdre's trunks. They would leave, bearing it—and Elua only knew what else—far from Alba's shores.

And I would stay.

We spent our last night together, there in the fortress of Bryn Gorrydum. With the boisterous clan-lords gone, it seemed a gentler, more pleasant place. 'Twas a place, I thought, that could use more of a woman's presence. I watched Drustan grow warmer and more relaxed with so many of the women of his family in attendance. I'd not given much thought to the plight of Drustan mab Necthana, the Cruarch of Alba. For some eight or nine months of the year, depending on the weather, he and Ysandre were parted. If he took lovers here in Alba, 'twas done discreetly, for I never heard of it. Of a surety, Drustan had no official consort or lover.

Nor did Ysandre.

They'd chosen that, the two of them. Chosen a life of abnegation to cement the alliance betwixt our nations, chosen to let no rumor dilute it.

I wondered if it was worth the cost.

On the morrow, we parted ways, saying our farewells in the courtyard. And whether it was because I was the one staying and not the one leaving, or because the charms that bound me blunted my emotions, for me this parting was easier than it had been when I'd gone to Tiberium.

“Look at you,” Phèdre murmured, touching the torc around my neck. “A proper Alban prince.”

“I'm trying,” I said.

“I know.” She gazed at me, eyes bright with unshed tears. “I'm proud of you. Take care of yourself, love. And your family.”

“I'll do my best,” I promised.

“Mind your footwork,” Joscelin said. “And try not to get killed.”

I laughed. “I will.”

Accompanied by the D'Angeline honor guard that had escorted us to Innisclan and back, they departed for the harbor, where the Cruarch's own flagship would carry them to Terre d'Ange. As I watched them ride through the gates of the courtyard, I felt, for the first time, a hollow sense of abandonment.

“Are you all right, Imri?” Dorelei, standing beside me, slid her hand into mine.

“Yes.” I took a deep breath and smiled at her. “You've never called me that before.”

“I'm sorry It's Alais' doing.” She smiled back at me. “I won't if you don't like it.”

I squeezed her hand. “I like it.”

Our party wasn't a large one, but we were laden with all the tribute gifts from our wedding, and it took a while to get the wagons loaded and the journey under way. At last it was done, and we said our farewells to Drustan and Talorcan; a far less arduous affair, since Clunderry was a mere three days' ride from Bryn Gorrydum.

And then we were off.

Another journey, another destination. Alba was a beautiful land, but I was growing weary of traversing it; and weary, too, of being a guest in someone else's manor. I would be glad to stay in one place for a while and call it home.

For two days, we followed one of the old Tiberian roads, departing on the third day to continue on a smaller road of hard-packed dirt. Dorelei described Clunderry to Alais and me as we rode. It was her childhood home, and her face lit up when she spoke of it.

By all rights, the estate should have belonged to the Lady Breidaia; and so it had for many years. It was by her own request that it had been deeded to Dorelei and me. Breidaia had never aspired to land and titles, and she had administered Clunderry alone for the long years since her husband's death. She was eager to lay down the burden and assume an honorary role with no responsibilities save pottering in her gardens and watching the many grandchildren she hoped we would bear her thrive.

I was glad, since it made Dorelei happy.

We arrived on the morning of the fourth day. Everything was much as Dorelei had described it. The sparkling little Brithyll River wound through the fields, widening at one point to form a small, weedy lake. Clunderry Castle perched on a low rise not far from the lake, sturdy and squat, looking more welcoming than imposing. Outlying buildings with thatched roofs dotted the landscape, and farther upstream sat the mill, its sails turning lazily.

The fields to the south and east were given over to growing crops— wheat, barley, and hay, for the most part, and a small apple orchard. To the north, the same low stone fences we'd seen everywhere in Alba meandered over the hills, where scores of cattle grazed.

Beyond, westward, it was all taisgaidh land, wild and wooded. There were elaborate laws regarding hunting and foraging rights on sacred ground, all of which Dorelei and I were expected to know and administer.

And there on the verge of the wood was the ollamh's stone hut, where Firdha would take up residence, continuing to tutor Alais. There were elaborate protocols involved in seeing to an ollamh's every need, too.

Somewhere in the woods beyond, I knew, there were other places, sacred places. The oak grove where Dorelei had slept under the ollamh's tutelage, learning to read the secrets of her dreams. The ring of standing stones, where, she whispered, it was rumored the Maghuin Dhonn had once offered blood sacrifices in exchange for dark magic. These things, too, were under the aegis of our protection. We were responsible for seeing that the ancient laws governing the taisgaidh ways were upheld and none of the sacred places were profaned.

We drew rein for a moment, gazing at Clunderry “I love it!” Alais said fervently, provoking a grin from dour Urist. “It's so pretty!”

Dorelei glanced at me. “What do you think?”

“I think we're home,” I said.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

The folk of Clunderry received us with reactions ranging from joy to wariness.Most of the wariness, I must own, was directed at me. The dark Cruithne-stamped features that had marked Alais as alien in Terre d'Ange stood her in good stead here, and her exuberance was infectious.

And most of the joy was evoked by the return of Dorelei, who was well liked by the household there. Her friend Kerys—Kinadius' sister—was one of the first to greet her, racing into the courtyard to fling her arms around Dorelei's neck.

“Oh, I've missed you!” she said impulsively, then turned. “Is this him ?”

Dorelei nodded. “Imriel, this is my friend Kerys.”

I had dismounted and was holding the Bastard's reins, wary of turning him over to a stable-lad without warning. I bowed. “Well met, my lady.”

“Oh.” Kerys' eyes grew wide as she gazed at me, and her hands rose involuntarily to cover her mouth. “Oh!” She bobbed a curtsy. “Oh!”

“Don't worry.” Dorelei smiled wryly. “You'll grow accustomed to him.”

She was right, but it took time.

During the first weeks that we ensconced ourselves at Clunderry, I nearly wished I had gotten my first warrior's mark, if only to blend better. It wasn't the first time I'd been the only full-blooded D'Angeline present in a foreign land, but of a surety, it was the only time I'd been set in a position of authority over a folk not my own.

And unfortunately, it wasn't just my features that set me apart. Terre d'Ange maintained a presence in Alba's cities, but few of my countrymen ventured into the rural areas. As a result, most of the ordinary folk of Clunderry knew D'Angelines only by reputation and rumor. They eyed me askance, waiting for me to display signs of the infamous D'Angeline licentiousness, wondering if I would begin a campaign of seduction and cut a swath through the willing lasses—and mayhap a few of the lads—of the estate.

Ironically enough, it reminded me of my own reaction when my Shahrizai cousins had summered at Montrève, bringing their smoldering Kusheline glamour with them. I'd been in a state of anticipation, half dreading and half hoping to catch Mavros in some thrilling, unspeakable act.

And so, like my kinsmen, I made it a point to conduct myself with perfect propriety. Of a surety, 'twas easy enough; I'd pledged myself to Dorelei in an oath I meant to keep, and all my darker desires were bound and muted. But the cause for that set me apart, too. The story of the Maghuin Dhonn's ensorcelment circulated; folks looked at the red yarn around my wrists and the croonie-stone at my throat and murmured. Even my morning practice of the forms of the Cassiline discipline, which I'd kept up diligently and refused to relinquish, drew stares and giggles.

But slowly, slowly, it changed.

I daresay it would have been more awkward if it hadn't been for Alais. Kinadius and several of the younger Cruithne under Urist's command had appointed themselves her honor guard. For several hours of the day, Alais studied with the ollamh Firdha, learning the myriad symbols and their meanings that might be found in dreams, and a good bit of herb-lore, too. When she was free, Alais explored every inch of Clunderry Castle and the immediate surroundings, accompanied by her honor guard and her ever-present wolfhound; and where she went, people were charmed. As they grew fond of the Cruarch's half-breed daughter, they warmed to the idea of a half-breed heir to Clunderry.

And slowly, to me.

Lady Breidaia's presence helped, too. Dorelei was close to her mother and I'd no doubt confided in her. I saw them talking together in the salon, heads bowed toward one another. Betimes I saw Dorelei's mother gaze at us with a trace of sorrow in her dark eyes, and I felt guilty that I didn't love her daughter as she deserved. But Breidaia was a warm and wise soul, and she saw clearly that I was doing my best and honored me for it.

Remembering Montrève and how the old Siovalese lords made it a point to labor side by side with their holders, I was determined to spend time acquainting myself with the various tasks involved in running the estate.

One of the first things I did was to consult with Urist regarding the security measures he'd taken. Clunderry was a sizable holding, some three thousand hectares, and it was impossible to maintain a constant patrol on its borders. But we spent two days riding the length and breadth of the estate, following the patrol routes he'd established, and he pointed out the places where he'd thought it best to establish permanent sentry posts. Somewhat to my surprise, he considered the estate of Briclaedh to the north one of the greatest threats.

“What about…” I hesitated. “…the Old Ones?”

Urist looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “If those ones come, they'll travel the taisgaidh ways, Prince Imriel. 'Tis a hard thing to post sentries in the forest. We'll keep watch on the verges, but we'd be better served by poachers and foragers in its depths. I've put out word that there's a reward for anyone who spots aught amiss in the woods.” He coughed into his fist. “And, mayhap, forgiveness of any fine they might have incurred.”

“All right.” I thought about it. “Wise enough. But why Briclaedh?”

“Ah, well.” Urist grinned. “Ask your lady wife.”

My ramble with Urist aside, days and evenings at Clunderry were beginning to settle into a calm rhythm. In the mornings, Dorelei and I consulted with the castle steward, discussing important matters such as the day's menu and the necessity of repairing a leaking roof in the stables. The steward was a quiet, competent fellow named Murghan, who had lost his sword-arm in battle in his younger days. One-armed or no, he'd once been a formidable warrior and he was admired more than pitied. It was well known that he'd shared the Lady Breidaia's bed for many years since her husband's death, but he made no presumptions because of it, and I thought well enough of him.

In the afternoon, three times a week, the reeve of Clunderry made his report to us. His job, for which we paid him an annual stipend, was to supervise the daily workings of the estate and adjudicate minor disputes. At every meeting, he provided us with a litany of Clunderry's progress and problems. The reeve, Trevedic, was a young man, earnest and eager. He'd learned his job at his father's knee, and he was anxious to make a good name for himself. We reviewed his decisions, and any more complicated claims for which we might be expected to hold audience.

Beyond these responsibilities, our time was our own. While I explored the workings of Clunderry, Dorelei spent a good deal of time in the pleasant, sunlit salon I'd seen in Hyacinthe's sea-mirror, where the women of the household gathered to spin and sew and converse. Although it was early yet, the babe she carried made her fatigued and betimes queasy, which the older women assured us, laughing, was normal.

In the evenings, we gathered in the great hall to dine. The atmosphere was warm and relaxed, and more often than not, we were joined by other members of the household; the steward Murghan; Kinada, who served as a lady-in-waiting to the Lady Breidaia, her daughter Kerys and son Kinadius.

“So,” I said the evening I'd returned from my excursion with Urist. “Unless I am mistaken, I recall that Leodan mab Nonna of Briclaedh attended our nuptials and presented us with a silver salt cellar. Tell me. Why does Urist want to post a guard to the north?”

The Lady Breidaia rolled her eyes. Kinadius winked at Dorelei.

“Oh, well.” Dorelei colored slightly. “He did make an offer for my hand before our betrothal was announced. I refused at the Cruarch's behest.”

“And …?” I asked.

“Well, he's nearly honor-bound to make a raid, isn't he?” Kinadius asked cheerfully. “He's abided by the Cruarch's will and shown good faith. Now he's obliged to test your mettle, and like as not he will before the weather turns.” He tapped his woad-marked brow. “He can claim insult because you're not a fit warrior.”

“Name of Elua!” I laughed in disbelief. “Are you jesting?”