Kushiel's Justice (Page 48)

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I thought about Sidonie.

I thought about Dorelei, too.

And I offered prayers of thanks and hope to Blessed Elua and his Companions, and all the myriad deities of Alba.

I hoped someone was listening.

Chapter Thirt y-One

“From all who seek to bind thee, be thou protected!”Firdha clapped her hands sharply. I blinked, sitting cross-legged on the floor of her stone hut. Without leaving the circle of salt she'd inscribed around me, I raised my wrists and examined the fresh bindings of bright red yarn, peered at my ankles.

“How do you feel?” Firdha inquired.

'Twas strange to think how I'd lost so much and felt it so little when Aodhan worked his charm on me. I'd made a good job of burying my heart. The loss had seemed distant and removed.

This time, it was different.

I'd let myself feel, and I felt it go. A deep loss, severing me from myself. I felt it; felt the world lose brightness and fade. Like a stone blocking a chimney, Alais had said; to me, it felt more like a sodden blanket flung over a bright-burning hearth. Once again, I was divided against myself for my own protection. Tears sprang to my eyes, born of a pain I could no longer feel. “Fine,” I said softly. “I feel fine. My thanks, Daughter of the Grove.”

Firdha nodded brusquely and began to sweep away the salt with a hazel-twig broom. “Go, then.”

I went.

Alais had watched the ritual with a pupil's grave interest, but she left the ollamh's hut with me, taking my hand and squeezing it. “I'm sorry, Imri,” she said. “Did it hurt?”

“Thanks, love.” I summoned a weary smile. “No, not exactly.”

“That's good.” For a moment, I thought Alais would say more, but she didn't.

The rest of Clunderry was in high spirits following the cattle-raid. Urist had decided it would be for the best if my misadventure along the way was kept quiet, and his men had agreed. They would double their watch along the taisgaidh border and increase the reward for sightings, but in truth, there wasn't a great deal else to be done.

I told Dorelei, of course.

She'd suspected somewhat was amiss. I'd gone directly to Firdha's hut upon returning, without even pausing to bathe. No one else in the household thought it odd, but they didn't know D'Angelines the way she did. I told her about it immediately afterward, soaking in the tub while she scrubbed gently at my myriad bruises.

“I wondered,” Dorelei murmured when I'd finished. “I had a dream last night.”

“A true dream?” I asked.

“No.” She smiled wistfully. “No, I dreamed it was spring. My belly was huge, and I could feel the babe moving. I was fat and lazy and happy. You kept trying to feed me honeycomb, you said it would make her sweet-tempered.”

I laughed. “Her?”

“In the dream, I was sure of it. But it wasn't a true dream. It was nice, though.” Dorelei examined me. “What's this in your hair?”

“Cow-dung,” I said. “Dorelei, how do you know when a dream is a true dream?”

“Close your eyes.” She poured a ewer of warm water over my head and began lathering my hair with a ball of soap. “You don't, not always. It takes practice. There's a way of paying attention in dreams, of listening for the small, still voice that says, 'Heed this.' Even then, you don't always remember or understand.”

“Do you think that's what the Maghuin Dhonn do?” I asked.

Her hands stopped moving. “No,” she said at length. “No, even if our gift does stem from the same roots, I think whatever it is they do is darker and more dangerous. Dunk your head, Imri.”

I obeyed and came up streaming water. “Why?”

Dorelei regarded me, troubled. “If what they say is true, then they see far further and far more than the simple glimpses our dreams afford us. They see possibilities, things that may or may not come to pass, and they seek to alter the outcome. I don't know, Imriel. Even mere glimpses are difficult to bear. Too much knowledge may be a dangerous thing, enough to drive a person to madness. When you first encountered her, you said Morwen wanted you to leave Alba. Now this business of a child, a magician child…” She shuddered. “It sounds terrible.”

“Don't worry,” I said grimly. “I've no intention of giving her a second chance.”

“I know.” She took my hand and kissed the inside of my wrist below the soaked yarn binding. “But I wish you didn't have to live this way.”

I caressed her face. “It's not all bad, you know.”

“I do.” Her dimples showed briefly. “Are you sufficiently clean?”

I got to my feet, dripping, and spread my arms. “What do you think?”

Dorelei laughed. It wasn't the laugh that had turned my world upside down and hollowed out a space in my heart no one else could fill; but it was her laugh, sweet and merry, ending in an endearing giggle.

And Elua help me, I had grown to love her.

It might not be enough, but what was there was good.

I climbed out of the tub and scooped her into my arms, hoisting her effortlessly. “I'd best do this while I can, hadn't I?” I teased.

“Mmm.” Dorelei twined her arms around my neck and kissed me. “Will you still love me when I'm fat and lazy and happy?”

“All the more,” I promised, carrying her toward the bedchamber.

“Will you bring me honeycomb?” she asked.

“Every day,” I said. “Didn't I tell you? I'm very good at climbing trees.”

Somewhere, there was a distant echo of loss. Trees. Sidonie's thigh flung over mine as we lay on our sides facing one another, still conjoined, her dark eyes limpid with pleasure; the aftermath of the most glorious, wondrous, terrifying intimacy I'd known.

I didn't think you liked climbing trees.

I don't.

I pushed the thought away and deposited Dorelei on our bed. She laughed breathlessly, reaching for me. I made love to her, tender and slow. I felt as though I were trying to hold all of Alba in my arms, trying to make love to the land itself.

For all the shadows that hung over it, for all that I ached somewhere behind my bindings, that night marked the beginning of the best times I spent at Clunderry, and they were among the best times of my life.

I'd won acceptance.

And I'd done it on my own merits; by conceiving of the cattle-raid, by venturing forth to lead it. By prevailing against the odds to win my freedom, by accepting the jest. There was a feast that night, and when Dorelei and I descended, hand in hand, to take part in it, the ensuing cheers were loud and sincere. Her face glowed, and I daresay mine did, too. For the first time, I truly felt we'd made a home here.

After the raid, Urist doubled the watch on our northern border, but there was no immediate retaliation forthcoming. Leodan of Briclaedh decided discretion was the wiser part of valor and sent a rider under a banner of truce with a polite message requesting the return of his cattle. We provided his man with generous hospitality and sent him back with a polite message of refusal.

“That's all right, then,” Urist said in satisfaction. “He'll not try anything until after the harvest season. Too much to be done.”

And indeed, there was. The long summer was drawing to an end. Although the days were still warm, they were growing shorter and there was a chill to the night air. The hay had already been gathered, and every day the crofters were afield, swinging their long sickles and felling the wheat. It was bundled into sheaves and brought to the threshing barn, where it was beaten with flails. Afterward, the grain was winnowed from the straw and chaff, then carefully weighed under the reeves supervision. Each crofter retained a portion, while the lion's share belonged to Dorelei and me.

It was arduous work, and in the weeks that followed, I took part in all of it. I wasn't trying to curry favor with the crofters; it was a Siovalese tradition and I was genuinely curious about how they lived. Clunderry's wealth, such as it was, was built on their sweat and labor.

And too, I had an idea that some D'Angeline innovation might lighten their burden. Trevedic the reeve laughed as I stood outside the mill, sketching the shape of its sails, but it seemed slow and inefficient to me. And surely, I thought, there was a better way to thresh the grain in the first place. I'd tried my hand at that, too, and it was back-breaking work.

“You look like a peasant,” Dorelei informed me when I returned to the castle stripped to the waist, dust and chaff plastered to my sweating skin.

I grinned at her. “Do you like it?”

She eyed me. “I'm not sure.”

I began writing a long letter to Joscelin, detailing the workings of the estate and asking his counsel on Siovalese engineering. I wished I'd paid attention the day he'd taken me to see Tibault de Toluard's hypocaust system for germinating early seeds, not to mention the inner workings of Montrève. I did know somewhat about it, but we'd never stayed there through harvest season—that was when we returned to the City.

The work didn't end with the harvest. Summer turned to autumn. The cattle were driven into the mown fields to graze on the stubble, and the bull was penned to stand stud to the cows. Fallow fields were plowed and harrowed in preparation for spring; winter crops of barley and oats were sown. The apple harvest was gathered and pressed into cider. Beech and oak trees dropped their nuts, and the pigs were driven into the woods to forage.

I liked it; I liked all of it, even the hard work. It kept my mind from wandering and gave me no time to brood. For the first time in many years—mayhap since I was a child tending goats at the Sanctuary—I felt truly useful.

And there were no signs of the Maghuin Dhonn.

It wouldn't last, of course. I had no illusions on that score. But while it did, I meant to relish every moment of the respite. As hard as I worked, I kept a sharp eye on my bindings, mindful that none were loosened or frayed. The croonie-stone never left my neck.

There were two things I did that autumn that made me proud.

For the first, I asked around and learned that there was a crofter on the estate of Sionnachan, some leagues to the south, who was renowned for his honey. I sent a message to Golven of Sionnachan asking permission to consult with the fellow. Mayhap it was because I was wed to the Cruarch's niece, or mayhap it was because I sweetened the request with a gift—a fine sword-belt with a gilded buckle of D'Angeline workmanship—but Lord Golven sent the beekeeper himself in reply.

Milcis the beekeeper was a gentle soul, with a shock of white hair and bright black eyes. I liked him very much. When I told him why I wanted to keep bees at Clunderry, he beamed with approval.

“You're a good husband, my lord,” he said. “Never mind the child! Trust me, when a woman's breeding, there's naught like good honey to sweeten her mood.”

Together, we paced the estate. Milcis showed me the best place to set up an apiary, betwixt the apple orchard and the woods. He taught the village thatcher how to construct bee-skeps out of straw, and consulted with the master of the orchard on the best way to capture swarming honeybees come spring.

“Can we not hope for an earlier harvest?” I asked anxiously. “The child's due in the spring.”

Milcis laughed. “Ah, no, my lord! Like breeding women, bees keep their own season. But never fear, it will make her milk run sweet, and she'll be grateful for it. When the babe begins to teeth and grow fretful, put a little on its gums and she'll bless you for a wonder.” When I frowned, he regarded me warmly. “Your first, is it?” I nodded, and he placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I've a goodly bit of honeycomb laid by for the winter. Do you know, 'tis the one food that never spoils? Never fear, my lord. I'll see right by your lady wife.”

“My thanks,” I said earnestly. “And I'll see right by you, my lord beekeeper.”

I tried to keep it a surprise, but Dorelei learned what I'd done from one of our reeve's reports. After Trevedic had left, she shook her head in amazement. “Bee-skeps, Imriel?”

I smiled at her. “I did promise.”

“You did.” Dorelei sat on my lap. The swell of her belly was visible now, even beneath clothing; slight, but pronounced. She sank her hands into my hair, gathering it in her fists. “Why do you have to be so nice?”

“I'm trying not to be insufferably self-absorbed,” I said. “Would you rather I didn't?”

“No.” She kissed me, then released my hair and smoothed it. “You're doing a good job of it.”

“With your permission, there is one selfish thing I'd like to do.” I tilted my head, regarding her. “I'd like to build a small shrine to Blessed Elua.”

“I suppose it's fitting,” Dorelei said slowly. “Our child should know her full heritage.”

“Or his,” I reminded her.

“Or his,” she agreed.

That was my second deed. With Dorelei's blessing, I sent a messenger to the Temple of Blessed Elua and his Companions in Bryn Gorrydum town, bearing a letter with my request and a generous offer of compensation. A swift affirmative reply returned, with a promise of an effigy and a priest to perform the dedication to follow.

It would be a simple affair. Clunderry had little in the way of decorative gardens, where such a shrine would be housed on a D'Angeline estate. Here, the primary purpose of the castle's gardens was to provide foodstuff; herbs, carrots, onions, lettuce, sorrel, leeks, parsnips, and the like. There was a market held once a week a couple of hours ride to the east, where excess crops were sold and traded, but by and large, Alban estates were far more self-sufficient than D'Angeline ones. Outside the cities, they had to be. Alba simply hadn't yet attained the same level of commerce and trade that Terre d'Ange had.