Kushiel's Justice (Page 50)
I took a deep breath. “Then you should have it.”
“How?” she asked.
“We'll talk to your father.” I shifted to sit on my heels, warming my bare feet. “Alais, sixteen is young to wed. The sky won't fall if your nuptials are postponed for a year.” She watched me with uncertainty and hope. “Besides,” I added, “you came to Alba to spend this year studying with the ollamh, right?” Alais nodded. I plucked at the red yarn around my left wrist. “Well, you've hardly had a chance.”
“Actually, I've learned a great deal,” she said.
“In theory,” I pointed out. “But you're not dreaming, are you?”
“No,” she said slowly. “Do you think Father might listen?”
“I do,” I said. “And I think there's merit in waiting to sort out this business with the Old Ones before wedding another member of House Courcel into the ranks of Alban's succession. I'm quite sure your mother would agree on that score.”
“Will you talk to Father?” Alais asked. “He's more like to heed you.”
“I will,” I promised.
She smiled, but there was an edge to it. “You know, there's not much I'd change about Alba, Imri. I love it here, I truly do. But I would change the laws of succession.”
“And rule as Alba's Queen?” I asked.
Alais' chin rose. “One day, yes.”
I didn't laugh. I looked gravely at her. Everything it seemed the Maghuin Dhonn had tried to bind me to or trick from me was already present. Alais loved Alba; Alais carried within herself the balance between the old ways and the new.
“Alba could suffer worse fates, love,” I said.
I kept my word to her and sent a message to Drustan mab Necthana requesting an audience with him. To my surprise, he sent a prompt reply informing me of his intention to visit Clunderry to attend the Feast of the Dead.
I had to own, the celebration was one I faced with a certain apprehension.
'Twas the time of year when all of Alba held that the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest, as the days grew shorter and shorter, edging toward the Longest Night. Almost everyone at Clunderry had some tale of encountering a departed spirit during the Feast of the Dead, but none of them had ever seen a living man possessed by a dead one.
Still, it was important that I take part in it. Firdha informed me of this in no uncertain terms. “You got your shrine, Prince Imriel,” she said. “Give Alba's dead their due.”
“Does the shrine displease you, Daughter of the Grove?” I asked politely.
“Me?” Her black eyes gleamed. “No.”
I paused. “The Old Ones?”
The ollamh shrugged. “Give the dead their due.”
So Clunderry prepared to honor the dead and receive the Cruarch. Drustan's visit was an honor, but it would strain our hospitality. Together, Dorelei and I consulted with the steward and fretted over our stores. I think mayhap the Lady Breidaia took pity on us and had a word with the steward Murghan, for after days of being polite and deferential, he advised us outright to cull the herd and slaughter several of the older cattle in preparation.
“What about the pigs?” I asked.
“Oh, no!” Murghan looked shocked. “That's not done until after the Feast of the Dead.”
I smacked my brow. “Right. Cattle it is.”
Between one thing and another, we managed to get everything in readiness for the Cruarch's arrival. Urist's men doubled up in the garrison and slept two to a pallet, grumbling and complaining.
Urist took a sanguine view. “At least I can pull my lads off the northern border for the feast. No chance Leodan will try to surprise us with the Cruarch in residence.”
“Would he profane the holiday thusly?” I asked.
“No.” Urist bared his teeth in a fierce smile. “But he might try it the day after when everyone's sated and careless. I would.”
Drustan arrived on a cold, blustery day with an escort of fifty men. Clunderry was crammed full to overflowing, but no one seemed to mind. The Cruarch had brought half a dozen casks of uisghe with him as a gift. Two were breached the first night; one in the garrison to be shared among the men, and one in the great hall to be shared by the household.
It felt strange to entertain the Cruarch in my own home and preside over such a large gathering. But in truth, the first night went relatively smoothly. Drustan was a gracious guest, at home and at ease among family. And although Dorelei and Breidaia were disappointed, I was glad to note that Talorcan hadn't accompanied him. Drustan had bidden him to host the Feast of the Dead at Bryn Gorrydum, reckoning it was good practice.
“Besides,” he said to me after the plates had been cleared that evening, “the celebration grows a bit wild. Folk lose the sense of it there in the city. I prefer to honor the dead in the old way, amid the standing stones and the oak grove. You've seen to it that the paths are clear?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Firdha made sure of it.”
“Good.” Drustan nodded. “You've done a good job here, Imriel. Better than I would have reckoned.”
“I'm trying, my lord,” I said.
“I've noted.” He eyed me. “So what was it you wished to discuss?”
I told him, quietly, why I thought it would be wise to postpone Alais' and Talorcan's wedding for at least a year. Drustan listened to me, watching Alais as he did. She was entertaining several of the minor lordlings who had ridden with him, sparing Dorelei some of the burden of serving as hostess to the merry mob. She managed it with a maturity and aplomb that she'd never evinced in Terre d'Ange. I daresay Sidonie would have been proud of her sister.
My Alais was growing up.
“You've a point,” Drustan said when I finished. “I'd as soon see the matter settled and done, but…” He shook his head. “Mayhap we acted in haste the first time.” His voice dropped. “I never reckoned the Maghuin Dhonn would do such a thing.”
“Nor I,” I murmured. “I didn't know it could be done.”
“I've word from Sister Nehailah,” Drustan said unexpectedly. “She's heard from her mentor.”
“So soon?” I asked in surprise. “How?”
He grinned. “I was curious myself, so I badgered the secret from her. It seems some of the temples use doves to carry messages over great distances. She's promised to teach me more.”
I thought about all the doves roosting in the cypress trees outside Naamah's Temple and smiled. “Clever. Did her teacher have any counsel?”
“Of a sort, yes.” Drustan's face grew sober. ” 'Tis his opinion that since the talisman that binds you was wrought of Alban clay and soil, 'tis only on Alba's soil that you are bound.”
“And free of it elsewhere?” I asked softly.
The Cruarch of Alba nodded. “Yes.”
I blew out my breath and glanced at Dorelei. She looked happy, her face soft with contentment. Her cheeks had grown rounder as the babe grew within her; or mayhap it was the result of Milcis' fine honey. She caught my eye and smiled, dimples showing deeply.
“A hard choice,” Drustan said with genuine sympathy.
“Truly.” I squared my shoulders. “My lord, I'm not going anywhere until the babe's born. I've promised her that much. We will talk, though.”
“Imriel…” Drustan hesitated. “If you would hear my counsel, I would say that if there is sufficient love present, a marriage may endure on a quarter-measure of time. Of a surety, I ought to know.” He patted my shoulder. “Think on it, and I will think on your words tonight. I must needs consult with Talorcan before I give any answer, and with my own lady wife, too.” He laughed. “Mayhap Sister Nehailah will permit me the use of her doves.”
That night as we lay abed, before blowing out the lamp, I told Dorelei about the priestess' message and what the Cruarch had said.
She listened gravely, her dark eyes luminous. “So he proposes a marriage like his own?”
“I think so, yes.”
“It wouldn't be, though. Not really.” Dorelei toyed with the red yarn around my wrist. “You'd have to consent to be bound here in Alba. Every time you came, you'd have to give up your freedom.”
“I know,” I said. “And you your dreams.”
“Could you do such a thing?” she asked.
“I think so.” I stroked her hair, black and shining, straight as fine-combed silk. “In truth? I don't know, love. We never know what we're capable of doing until we're called upon to do it. I'd try, though. What of you? Could you endure it?”
Dorelei smiled ruefully, her face averted. “Oh, yes.”
“Well, then.” I shrugged.
She looked up at me. “What about her?”
It had been a long time since we'd spoken of it. I didn't answer right away, realizing I'd not thought it through. What if there's a child? Sidonie had told me she would hate knowing there was such a large part of me she couldn't share. But that was true, regardless; and she already knew it. Come when you can, with or without your wits. Would Sidonie be content with three-quarters of my life? Would she be willing to take me as a consort while I continued to be wed to my Alban wife? To bear her own heirs out of wedlock? It would be a tremendous sacrifice to ask of her. And I didn't even want to begin to think about how Queen Ysandre and the D'Angeline peerage would react. Mayhap it would be better all around if Dorelei and I let our vows lapse when the year and a day had passed.
“I don't know,” I said softly. “Truly, Dorelei, I don't. But I do know we've made a life together here, and a child between us, and I can't walk away from that altogether. Not now, not ever.”
“I'm glad,” she whispered.
On the day of the Feast of the Dead, we fasted.Oh, to be sure, the kitchens were hard at work all day long; in Clunderry Castle and in every crofter's thatched hut. They turned out tarts and pies, all manner of puddings and oatcakes by the score, while soups simmered, roasts sizzled in their own juices, and capons grew crisp-skinned and tender. But none of it was meant to be eaten, not yet.
Outside the castle walls, the foundation for a great bonfire was laid with care, a tall cone reaching toward the steely grey sky. Despite the cold weather and the hunger, everyone was in good spirits.
Although I understood the protocol of the celebration, I had no idea what to expect. I'd felt the presence of the dead unleashed among the living in Lucca and it hadn't been pleasant. The prospect of courting them deliberately had me nervous and on edge. I couldn't help thinking about the way Gallus Tadius had taken possession of Lucius. Dorelei assured it me it was nothing like what I'd witnessed in Lucca. Betimes the dead appeared to one, but often they didn't. She claimed to have seen a spirit once; the spirit of her aunt Moiread, who had died in the battle of Bryn Gorrydum.
“How did you know it was her?” I asked.
“I didn't,” she said. “She looked a lot like my mother, only younger, and there was a brightness about her. And she was carrying a bow. She smiled at me. When I told my parents about it, they said it was her.”
“What did it mean?”
Dorelei shrugged. ” 'Twas a sign that she was happy in the underworld. That she died well, with courage and honor, and that her death had been properly avenged.”
“What about the unhappy dead?” I asked.
“They're not happy,” Dorelei said. “And they don't smile.”
When the invisible sun began to sink below the western horizon, all the lamps, torches, and candles in Clunderry were extinguished and the cooking fires were banked. A portion of all the food prepared that day was carried outside the castle walls and set on a long trestle table erected for the purpose. We bundled ourselves into warm clothing and thick woolen cloaks and gathered outside around the looming pile of brush and firewood, taking up unlit torches prepared for the occasion.
Darkness seemed to rise upward from the cold, barren ground. The ollamh Firdha lifted her hands and invoked the gods of death and the underworld, inviting them to open their gates that the dead might visit the living and be honored. She invoked the gods of fire and light to illuminate their paths and welcome them with brightness and warmth, and invoked the diadh-anam of the Cullach Gorrym to guide us.
When the ollamh's invocation was finished, Alais presented her with a flint striker. The Daughter of the Grove knelt and kindled the fire, the sparks bright and vivid against the gloaming.
It caught quickly, pitch-soaked twists of straw roaring to life. Within minutes, the bonfire was a roaring blaze, a tower of flame licking at the sky. Drustan stepped forward to light the first torch, and cheers echoed throughout Clunderry.
The procession began.
Firdha led it, flanked by a pair of the Cruarch's men, holding their torches high to light her way. One by one, we all came forward, dipping our torches into the bonfire, then proceeding past the trestle table, where we retrieved an item of food. I picked up a small mincemeat pie. The smell made my empty stomach rumble.
The procession crossed a stretch of darkened field, heading toward the taisgaidh woods. As I had promised Drustan, the paths had been cleared, although I'd not travelled them myself. I'd not ventured into the woods since the night of the cattle-raid.
As Firdha entered the darker shadow of the trees, I turned back to glance behind me. We were at the forefront of the procession. It snaked behind us, hundreds of people long, torches flickering all the way across Clunderry. The sight made me shiver with a mix of awe and apprehension.