Kushiel's Justice (Page 51)

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“Are you all right?” Dorelei asked.

“Fine.” I smiled at her. “Hungry.”

The woods were dense, but the path was wide and clear. It had to be, else we'd set fire to the place. Even so, it made me nervous. Dry branches reached down toward us like brittle fingers, eager to touch the crackling flames.

The Cruithne do this every year, I reminded myself.

I set my fear aside and concentrated on the dead, trying to honor them in my memory. To be sure, I had enough of them. I thought about all who had died in Daršanga, all the victims and martyrs and valiant fighters. Remember this. I thought about my comrades in Lucca, and the soldiers I'd killed with my own hand, praying for their forgiveness. I thought about Gilot, who had died a hero after all; and Canis, who'd given his life for mine.

I thought about Dorelei's dead; my family, now. Her grandmother, her father, her young aunt. I prayed that they would smile upon her.

We entered the oak grove. They were ancient trees with vast, spreading crowns and gnarled trunks, twisting roots thicker than a strong man's arm emerging from the soil. My skin prickled and my bindings itched. This was a sacred place.

In the center of the grove, Firdha pointed. One of the men escorting her knelt and planted his torch in the soil, then rose and kindled a second torch from it. Firdha raised her hands and gave another invocation.

“Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, feast and be welcome among us this night!”

There, we left our offerings of food, a steady pile growing around the burning torch. And then the ollamh led us onward, the path twisting and winding as it led out of the grove and deeper into the woods.

How long we walked, I could not say. I never grew tired and the time passed as if in a dream; it could have been hours or merely minutes. At last the woods opened onto a clearing and the ring of standing stones was before us.

I'd heard tell there were larger ones elsewhere in Alba, and I daresay it was true; but this was large enough. There were nine stones, all standing on end, all solid granite, and none less than half again as tall as I was. I touched one as we entered, following Firdha. It was rough and cool to the touch.

“Here.” Firdha pointed to a half-buried boulder that marked the center. Her other escort knelt and planted his torch beside it. Drustan mab Necthana beckoned into the torch-streaked darkness behind us, and two of his men came forward, carrying a cask of uisghe between them. They placed it atop the boulder, and Drustan pulled out the cork bung.

Uisghe flowed, pouring over stone and seeping into the earth. I could smell the tang of it.

There was another odor, too; darker and deeper. It was mixed in with the scent of loam and night and fermented grain. Blood. Old blood.

Firdha raised her face to the dark sky and opened her arms. “Crom, Cailleach, Macha, Balor! We bring tribute and thanks! May Alba's dead rest gentle in your keeping, and receive the honor of the living this night!”

I shuddered.

Nothing happened, though. Firdha lowered her arms and led the procession around the interior of the circle of stones. Well and so, I thought as we completed the circle and the procession began to double back on itself; that is that. What did you expect, Imriel? This is Alba, where you've no dead of your own.

The horse beside me tossed its head and snorted in agreement.

Name of Elua! I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“What is it?” Dorelei asked quietly.

I pointed at the horse and rider pacing alongside us on the path, pale and spectral, as though they were wrought out of mist. I could see torch-bearing figures walking on the other side of the path clear through them, still proceeding toward the standing stones. “There. Him. Them. Do you see?”

“No.” She shook her head. “Who is it?”

I lifted my gaze to meet the rider's eyes. I knew him; I knew his face. He was D'Angeline. An old man, grave and sorrowful. His face was wrinkled, but I knew it. I knew the strong, firm line of his brows, the angle of his jaw visible beneath the sagging skin. I'd seen it in the Hall of Portraits in the Palace in the City of Elua. I'd seen it in the mirror.

“Father? ” I whispered.

The rider lifted one hand; whether in acknowledgment, benediction, or apology, I could not say. Mayhap it was all three. I'd thought Berlik of the Maghuin Dhonn had the saddest face I'd ever seen on a man. I was wrong. My father's face was sadder. I reached out to him unthinking, and he vanished. There was only the path and the woods and the long, winding line of processionists passing us in the opposite direction.

“Oh!” I blinked. “Dorelei, he's gone.”

“It's all right.” She took my arm and pressed it against her warm, living flesh. “They can't stay long, Imriel. They never do.” She smiled up at me. “Mayhap he wanted to behold his grandchild in the womb.”

You will wonder about your father…

My father had spent his life in exile for the sake of political gain, and hated it. Bitterness had poisoned him. He had come to despise his own half-Caerdicci children. My mother had known it. She had exploited it. And I had followed in his footsteps in a way, though I'd never thought on it. But it wasn't the same, not at all. Although I missed Terre d'Ange, I'd learned to love Alba. I'd learned to love my wife, who had taught me to be a better person. Would my father love this half-Cruithne grandchild of his?

I hoped so. I hoped death had brought wisdom to him.

“Mayhap,” I said to Dorelei. “I hope so.”

Still, I wished he hadn't looked so sad.

Upon our return to Clunderry, the great bonfire was burning much, much lower. The fires were rekindled in the hearths, the oven-embers uncovered, the lamps and torches and candles were relit, and at last we feasted. Hungry though I was, I hovered over Dorelei first to ensure that the long walk hadn't overtaxed her and she ate well. I'd tried to persuade her not to take part in the ritual, but she'd pointed out that she was perfectly fit, and there were women among the crofters further along in their pregnancies than she was walking in the procession.

We stayed awake until the small hours of the night, sharing memories of our dead, and tales of those glimpsed along the paths, our tongues loosened by uisghe and the strangeness of the night.

I learned a great deal about the members of my household that night, and I daresay they could say the same of me. D'Angeline politics were distant and of little interest to most Albans, especially here in the countryside. The history of my parentage came as somewhat of a novelty to them.

“I'd a brother was a traitor,” Urist offered unexpectedly. “Remember, my lord?”

Drustan nodded quietly. “I do.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He chose to side with Maelcon the Usurper.” Urist gazed into the depths of his cup. “I killed him myself in the battle of Bryn Gorrydum. He'd been sore wounded, but I finished the job. I pray for his forgiveness every day.” He looked up. “I saw him on the paths, once. I think he wanted me to know he understood.”

“Mayhap he wanted your forgiveness,” I said.

“Do you think that's what your father sought?” Urist asked shrewdly.

“I don't know.” I frowned. “Mayhap.”

The memory stayed with me for many days, long after Drustan and his men had departed. The enormity of my mother's crimes had always overshadowed my father's; he'd never even been convicted of treason, having died before he could stand trial. And my mother's living presence had always overshadowed his absence. Even having vanished, she remained a presence in my life. I'd felt it at the Palace, and I'd felt it in Caerdicca Unitas, where her man Canis had saved my life. Here in Alba, beyond the reach of the long arm of the Unseen Guild, 'twas the first time I'd truly felt free of it.

But my father…I'd never given him much consideration.

As the weeks passed and late autumn gave way to winter in Clunderry, I found myself thinking a great deal about the past, looking for clues to the future. My father's children from his first marriage, Thérèse and Marie-Celeste, had turned their back on their D'Angeline heritage and flung themselves into marriage and intrigue in La Serenissima. I hoped that wouldn't happen with Dorelei's and my child.

Still, I thought, if it did, I would try to bear it with grace and understanding. I wouldn't disdain him—or her—for the choice. I hoped our child would embrace both sides of its heritage, but I'd not shove any false notions of D'Angeline superiority down its throat.

I wondered if my father had done that with his half-Caerdicci children, making them feel inadequate. I suspected mayhap it was so. To be sure, Alais and Sidonie had experienced a measure of the same prejudice from many of the realm's peers. Sidonie was capable of meeting it with withering contempt, but Alais…it had hurt her.

And even Sidonie…

I remembered the first time we'd made love. I'd told her, afterward, that I liked her black eyes, the way they didn't match the rest of her. I remembered what she'd said. You don't mind?

And so I meditated on my father's spectral visit and resolved, over the course of the winter, to take it as a warning and learn from his mistakes. If Dorelei's and my child emerged with jet-black hair and eyes, toast-brown skin, dimpled cheeks, and a predilection for poetry, cattle-raids, and uisghe, I'd love it not a whit less.

I told her that one night as we lay in bed. I was rubbing flaxseed oil on her belly, which had acquired an impressive rondeur.

“I never thought you wouldn't,” Dorelei said in surprise.

“No?” I smoothed more oil over her taut skin, watching it gleam. Dorelei said she could feel the babe moving, but I couldn't, not yet. Another month, the older women assured me. “I worry, that's all.”

“You shouldn't.” She smiled at me. “You may be insufferably self-absorbed, but you do have a good heart, Imriel.”

I hoped it was true. I'd wondered before in my life what manner of person I'd have become if I'd grown up as the goat herding orphan I'd believed I was. But I'd never thought to wonder what I'd be like if I'd grown to manhood as the son of Melisande Shahrizai and Benedicte de la Courcel, shaped by my mother's machinations and my father's bitterness.

Very different, I suspected.



Mayhap ruthless.

No one, I thought, was all good or all bad. I'd learned that in Lucca. And if I had goodness in me that hadn't been destroyed by Daršanga— the stunted tree reaching for sunlight—almost all of it was owed to Phèdre and Joscelin's influence in my life. I owed them so much I could never repay. But mayhap I could do it by giving my own child what they had given me; deep, abiding, unconditional love.

Impending fatherhood made me thoughtful and reflective, and no doubt a great deal of it was due to my own troubled heritage. But in truth, there wasn't much else to do. The harvest was gathered, and we'd slaughtered the pigs after the Feast of the Dead. The meat was salted and curing. The cattle hovered close to their byres, rendering a raid unlikely.

There were no sightings of the Maghuin Dhonn; none at all.

Mayhap, I thought, that like the Brown Bear that was their diadh-anam, the Old Ones slept through the winter.

To be sure, this was the time of year when everyone stayed indoors and gathered around the hearth to stay warm, telling tales and making music to amuse themselves. It should have been dull, but it wasn't. Wrapped in my bindings, I was content with the slow, measured pace of life, rendered miraculous by the growing life in Dorelei's womb.

It felt strange not to celebrate the Longest Night, though.

It didn't pass unmarked in Alba, but their rituals were different. They do not celebrate the night itself, but the following day, bidding farewell to the old year and ushering in the new with the Day of Misrule, when all is rendered topsy-turvy and the lords and ladies dance attendance on their servants.

I was privy to all the plans, and I fully intended to play my role. But on the Longest Night itself, I found myself uneasy, itching and restless. It didn't help that Alais entertained the household with an interminable, detailed description of how the Longest Night was celebrated in Terre d'Ange; all the sparkling joie, sumptuous glamour, and elegant, intricate costumes. It was the first time I'd heard her speak of home with such fond animation, and the Cruithne listened in fascination, begging for further tales of glittering excess.

“Do you remember Eamonn and his hammer, Imri?” she asked. “When he was the Skaldic thunder-god?”

“Oh, yes,” I said. “I remember.”

“You were a scandal that year, Eamonn and House Montrève!” Alais laughed. “But Sidonie topped you last year, didn't she?”

“Your sister?” Kinadius asked.

Alais nodded. “She came as the Sun Princess. 'Tis hard to explain.”

My throat tightened. Of a sudden, it felt as though the red yarn around my wrists and ankles was cutting my circulation. I rose, my hands and feet feeling hot and uncomfortable. Dorelei's head rose at my abrupt movement. I took a deep breath. “You know, Alais, it is the Longest Night. Someone should keep Elua's vigil.”

I didn't wait for her response. I sketched a brief bow in Dorelei's direction, not meeting her eyes, and blundered for the door, borrowing a cloak as I exited the castle, the gate opened by a startled guardsman.

Outside, it was cold.

A light snow had fallen, and it was cold enough that it creaked beneath my boots. I trudged toward the frozen lake and Elua's shrine. The sky was clear and the stars were bright overhead. I could see my breath rising in plumes of frost. Clunderry looked peaceful and prosperous beneath the winter sky, slats of warm light glowing through the shuttered windows of every cottage.