Kushiel's Justice (Page 49)

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But the Lady Breidaia had a small flower garden which she maintained for pleasure, growing roses, columbine, and lavender, and there was a place near the little lake where lilies grew wild. After consulting with Alais, who was pleased by the notion, it was there I decided to set the shrine. Urist's lads lent a hand. We built a small arbor to house the effigy, and Breidaia generously donated plants from her garden.

I did most of the work of transplanting them myself, reckoning it ought to be done with reverence, and it gave me a profound sense of satisfaction. The rosebushes were barren, the lavender dry and desiccated, and the columbine looked nearly dead, but their roots were healthy and thriving. Come summer, the arbor would be glorious.

A week after the work on the arbor was completed, Elua's priest arrived; or priestess, rather. It was a bright, crisp day, and all of Clunderry paused to watch her arrival as she entered the estate, accompanied by two acolytes and a horse-drawn wagon.

After so long among the Cruithne, it came as a bit of a shock. I'd not seen another D'Angeline face save Alais' for weeks on end, and she could nearly pass as Cruithne. And, too, the priestess was young. I hadn't expected that.

I greeted her in the courtyard, bowing. “My lady priestess, I am Imriel of Clunderry. Be welcome here.”

“Imriel of Clunderry, is it?” A smile touched her lips. One of the acolytes scrambled out of the wagon and held her reins as she dismounted. “Well met, your highness. I am Nehailah Ansout.”

She took my hand and I gave her the kiss of greeting without thinking. Her lips were soft and cool. Beneath the blue robes of her office, Sister Nehailah Ansout was tall and slender. Despite the day's chill, her feet were bare. Her bright blonde hair fell down her back in a long, thick braid and her hazel eyes were flecked with green and gold.

My bindings began to itch.

“Where is your lady wife?” the priestess asked.

I cleared my throat and tried not to scratch at my wrists. “Awaiting you within, my lady. She is with child, and we thought it best if she didn't wait in the cold air.”

“I see.” Her hazel gaze roamed over me, taking in the golden torc and croonie-stone around my throat, the red yarn at my wrists. “You have indeed become a Prince of Alba, your highness.”

I fought the urge to check my fingernails for dirt. “I've been trying.”

She introduced her acolytes, Denis and Michelet. They were a pair of fresh-faced lads, and I daresay neither was a day over eighteen. Together, they lifted the effigy, swaddled in crimson silk, out of the wagon and carried it inside. It was a small piece, standing waist-high, but heavy with it.

I escorted Sister Nehailah. Her bare feet made no sound on the flagstones, but her long braid swayed as she walked. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Kinadius gaping and shook my head at him.

In the great hall, Dorelei was waiting, along with her mother and Alais. Her eyes widened a little at the sight of the priestess, but she greeted her graciously.

It felt odd to have D'Angelines at Clunderry. We held a small feast in their honor that night. On the morrow, the effigy would be placed and the shrine would be dedicated, and Sister Nehailah and her acolytes would take their leave, but for a brief space of time, a piece of Terre d'Ange had entered Clunderry.

It made me yearn for home.

It was a longing that owed naught to desire; although there was that, too. It was somewhat deeper, somewhat bred in the bone. A simple thing, a yearning for the sights and sounds and scents of home, to be surrounded by people who didn't look askance at my unmarked face, who thought and worshipped as I did.

I watched Alais that night, trying to gauge if she felt as I did. I didn't think so. She and Kerys giggled and flirted with the young acolytes; especially Michelet, who had unruly blond curls, a turned-up nose, and blue eyes yet to acquire a priest's detached calm. And I caught Dorelei watching me when she thought I wouldn't notice.

Dorelei retired early that evening, and I rose to accompany her.

“Stay.” She touched my hand. “I'm sure you'd rather.”

“Prince Imriel.” Sister Nehailah stood. It was dark enough that the torches and candles were lit, and the flickering light played over her robes and turned her braid into molten gold. Her face was calm and grave. “If it's no trouble, your highness, I would beg a word with you.”

I glanced at Dorelei.

“I wouldn't refuse a request from an ollamh” my wife observed. “Stay.”

I kissed her cheek. “I'll be along soon.”

Like Bryn Gorrydum, Clunderry wasn't built for privacy; and at any rate, I'd no intention of closeting myself with Nehailah Ansout. I beckoned her to the far end of the table.

“What is it, my lady?” I asked.

Sister Nehailah folded her hands in her lap and studied me. Young though she was, of a surety, she'd acquired a priestess' detached look. “I have heard about this.” Although she spoke the Alban tongue flawlessly, she'd switched to D'Angeline. She nodded at my bound wrists.

“I do not fully grasp Alban magic, but it is my understanding that you are protected against your own desires. It troubles me.”

I scratched my bindings. “Believe me, it troubles me, too.”

“Is there aught that might be done?” she asked.

I turned my hands outward. “You know why I wear them?”

“I do.” The priestess frowned. “I bespoke the Cruarch when the tale reached my ears. Lord Drustan is generous and open in his support of our temple, fledgling though it is. It is his hope that D'Angeline visitors and his own kin may feel at home in Alba.”

“Well, then.” I shrugged. “You know it is Alban magic that binds and threatens me, and Alban magic that binds and protects me. If there is aught Blessed Elua can do about it, you'd know it better than I, my lady.”

She shook her head. “I have no magic to offer.”

“So.” I ran one finger beneath the yarn. “The bindings stay.”

“In defiance of Blessed Elua's precept?” Sister Nehailah asked softly.

“Not entirely.” I met her gaze squarely. “I do love my wife, my lady.”

Something in her expression shifted. “I hear a deeper truth behind the words you are not saying, Prince Imriel. There is another you love and desire.”

I looked away. “My lady, I spoke true. And Dorelei carries our child, a child who may one day become heir to Alba. I've prayed for guidance, but Blessed Elua has been silent. Mayhap with the shrine, that will change. Or mayhap Dorelei and I will be left to muddle through this as best we may. If you have advice, I'd be pleased to hear it.”

“I wish I did.” She was silent for a moment, then gave me a wry smile; more woman than priestess. “There aren't many in Elua's priesthood willing to take a posting to Alba. I thought I would benefit from the opportunity. Still, you might be better served by someone with more experience. I will write to my own teacher, Brother Louvel. Mayhap his wisdom will prove a better guide.”

“My thanks,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“I do have one thing for you.” Sister Nehailah withdrew a sealed letter from the folds of her robe and handed it to me. “This was delivered to Bryn Gorrydum the day before I left. The Cruarch bade me deliver it to you.”

My hand trembled as I took the letter. “Thank you.”

Another long look. “You are welcome,” Sister Nehailah said. “I will pray to Blessed Elua on your behalf. But it is in my heart that even he cannot protect us from ourselves, and that, Prince Imriel, is the crux of the matter.”

With that, she took her leave of me. I sighed, turning the letter over and over in my hands. I recognized the insignia of House Shahrizai on the wax seal and Mavros' handwriting, firm and jaunty, addressing the letter to me. At the opposite end of the table, Alais and Kerys were still flirting with the acolytes. Kinadius had joined them, looking disgruntled and jealous. It made me smile ruefully, but they'd come to no harm through it. I was glad my young cousin was finding a way to play the Game of Courtship after all.

I cracked the seal and opened the letter.

Mavros had written a full page. I put it aside. The other letter was a single line written on a piece of foolscap.

Imriel,

Come when you can, with or without your wits.

S.

That was all, but it was enough to make my throat tighten. No one else in the world could make me want to laugh and cry all at once with a single sentence. With a pang, I pushed the bit of scrap into the nearest candle-flame. It caught at once, flaring and singeing my fingertips. I dropped it onto the flagstones, smearing the ashes with the heel of my boot.

“Is everything all right, my lord?”

It was the steward, Murghan. I'd not even noticed him approach, quiet and efficient as he was. There was compassion and concern in his dark gaze.

“Fine.” I rose. “I'm off to join Lady Dorelei. You'll see to it that our guests want for naught?”

He nodded. “I will.”

I bade a good evening to the acolytes and Clunderry's household. Alais' violet eyes were sparkling vividly, and she was flushed with high spirits. I wanted to ruffle her black curls the way I had when she was a girl, but I kissed her cheek instead.

“Have fun, love,” I said to her.

I left them laughing and happy and went to join Dorelei, who was still awake. She looked at me with an unspoken question in her face.

“It was nothing,” I said to her. “Sister Nehailah wanted to speak to me about these.” I indicated the bindings. “She's going to write to the priest who taught her to see if there's aught to be done.”

Dorelei's face eased. “That's good, then.”

“Yes.” I blew out the lamp and lay in the darkness, haunted by the priestess' words.

It is in my heart that even he cannot protect us from ourselves…

Chapter Thirty-Two

In the morning, the effigy was placed and the shrine was dedicated.As proud as I'd been of the arbor, I had to own, it looked a bit forlorn in its autumnal bleakness. Still, when the statue of Blessed Elua was set into place and unveiled, I felt a sense of peace settle over me.

It was done in the old style, crude and simple, yet somehow more powerful for it. A more elaborate effigy would have mocked its surroundings. With the reedy lake at his back, Elua smiled serenely in the direction of the castle, his arms outstretched.

“Blessed Elua be with us, here and everywhere.” Sister Nehailah uncorked a flagon of oil and anointed the effigy. A scent of roses arose. “May your Companions watch over us and guide us. May you hold us in your hand and keep us safe. May we ever walk in your footsteps and follow your precept.”

Watchers murmured curiously to one another. The ollamh Firdha was present. I glanced at her once, but her face was unreadable.

When her prayers were complete, Sister Nehailah spread her arms, echoing the effigy's stance. “In the name of Blessed Elua, I dedicate this shrine to his worship, and the worship of his Companions.”

The air seemed to brighten. I took a deep breath, smelling roses.

“That was nice,” Dorelei said, sounding surprised.

“What were you expecting?” I grinned at her. “An orgy?”

“I wasn't sure,” she admitted.

So it was done, and I felt better for it. Sister Nehailah and her acolytes departed, but a piece of Terre d'Ange stayed behind. And while I found no guidance at Elua's shrine, I did find it easier to pray there, and my mind was always calmer afterward.

Betimes, Alais went with me, though not as often as I did. As autumn dwindled toward winter, the weather turned cold and the breeze over the lake was bone-chilling.

“Do you ever miss it?” I asked her one day. “Home?”

“Sometimes.” Alais knelt beside me, shivering a little despite her thick woolen cloak. “But I do love it here, Imri.” Her voice dropped. “More than home. And I'm happy here with you and Dorelei and Aunt Breidaia, and Firdha, and everyone.” She watched Celeste nosing around the dry, brittle reeds at the lake's edge. “I miss my mother, mostly. And Sidonie. We didn't part well.”

My heart contracted painfully. I touched the croonie-stone at my throat. “Why?”

Alais looked sidelong at me. “You saw us in the sea-mirror. Dorelei told me.”

“I didn't want you to think I was spying.” I smiled, but Alais didn't smile in answer. “Maslin of Lombelon?”

She nodded. “I never liked him, you know. He treated you badly, and he never had the slightest interest in me. I think he's false and ambitious, and he masks it with rudeness. Sidonie thinks he's blunt and honest. We quarrelled about it.”

My bindings itched. Somewhere, on the far side of the ollamh's charms, bitter jealousy stirred. I gazed at Blessed Elua's face, rubbing my palms on my thighs until it passed. “He may be ambitious, Alais; and of a surety, he's proud and arrogant. Still, I don't think he'd play Sidonie false.”

The words surprised me, a little, but they were true. Alais frowned. “Mayhap. I don't know. Anyway, I don't think he makes her happy.”

“Does she make him happy?” I asked.

“Not really, no.” Alais gave her reply without looking at me.

“Alais …” I touched her arm.

“You know, I understand it all a little bit better, now.” She fixed her gaze on the wolfhound. “It's different here in Alba, at least for me. I see why people play the game for fun. It is fun, though I imagine it can be dangerous, too. I wish…” Her voice trailed off.

“What do you wish, love?” I asked.

Alais did look at me, then. Her nose was red with cold, but her eyes were direct and unwavering. “I wish I had more time before wedding Talorcan.”