Kushiel's Justice (Page 52)
Near the edge of the lake, I paused to remove my boots. Leaving melted footprints in my wake, I approached the shrine. Beneath the barren arbor, the effigy of Blessed Elua smiled serenely under a cap of snow.
I bowed and kissed his feet, then stepped and knelt, bowing my head. The croonie-stone was heavy around my neck.
A year; only a year.
A year ago tonight, I had danced with Sidonie and kissed her behind the hollow mountain in the ballroom, had sat atop a table in Cereus House and watched the revelries, had ridden barefoot and rag-clad through the streets of the City to watch the dawn come at the Temple of Elua. A year ago tonight, it had all begun in earnest. It seemed like much, much longer; and it seemed like yesterday.
I wanted to pray, but I didn't have any words. Only memories so strong and vivid they strained at my bindings. I rested my hands on the ground before me, cooling them, and heard the sound of snow crunching behind me. I recognized the footsteps, steady and deliberate. Phèdre had taught me to listen for such things.
“Urist?” I called.
He grunted. “How'd you know?”
I didn't answer his question. “It's all right, I don't need a minder.”
Urist leaned against a tree. “I disagree.”
He was right, of course; I didn't like it, but I couldn't argue against it. And so Urist stayed while I knelt and kept Blessed Elua's vigil, melted snow soaking the knees of my breeches. At some point, one of the others came to relieve him—Budoc, I thought. And then, later, Kinadius. He was restless, shifting and coughing and blowing on his fingers. I finally turned to raise my brows at him.
“Sorry, my lord,” he apologized. ” 'Tis cold.”
“It's almost over,” I said.
Kinadius managed to contain himself then. I stayed and watched until the sun rose. There was no horologist to announce its arrival. Somewhere in the middle of the night, a heavy bank of clouds had covered the sky, and dawn broke grey and sullen.
Still, it was dawn.
I got to my feet, gazing toward the east. In Terre d'Ange, the revelers would be stumbling toward their beds. I wondered, briefly, who would be sharing Sidonie's, and pushed the thought away. It wasn't as hard as it might have been. I was stiff and very, very cold.
“Is it finished, my lord?” Kinadius asked. I nodded. “Let's get you back, then.”
There was no temple vestibule, warmed with braziers, in which to thaw. My hands and feet were too cold to draw on my boots. I leaned on Kinadius and hobbled back to the castle. He glanced behind us once, shaking his head at the dark, melting tracks my bare feet left in the snow.
“Just like the story of your Elua, isn't it?” he said. “Do you reckon flowers will bloom where you tread?”
“Not likely.” I smiled. “I'm surprised you know of it.”
He smiled back at me. “Oh, I learned a few things in the City.”
The castle was just beginning to stir when we returned. There wasn't any water heated for a bath yet, so I simply shucked my damp clothes and crawled into bed beside Dorelei. Although I was careful not to touch her, I'd begun to shiver violently and it woke her. She rolled over to regard me, her head pillowed on one arm.
She didn't say anything, but I could see it in her eyes. Dorelei was no fool, and she'd come to know me. She'd seen the change in me when Alais had spoken of Sidonie. She'd never wanted to know to whom my innermost heart was given. Now she did. I opened my mouth to speak, and she covered my lips with her free hand.
“Don't,” she murmured. “Let me keep what's mine.” Taking her hand away, she leaned over to kiss my cold lips, then smoothed the hair from my brow. “Go to sleep. I'll wake you in a few hours.”
Betimes there is a mercy in things left unspoken.
I obeyed, and slept.
The Day of Misrule was a riotous affair, and tired though I was, I enjoyed it. I was young and I'd gotten used to going short of sleep in Lucca. My body hadn't lost the knack of it.And too, it gave Dorelei and me reason not to dwell on the unspoken.
Lots were drawn among the most junior members of the household to determine who would be the Lord or Lady of Misrule, and the honor fell to a scullery lad, a lowly cook's apprentice named Hoel. He was crowned with a wreath of dead oak leaves and given a wooden spoon for a scepter, and for the course of the day his word was law. His first act was to order the Cruarch's last cask of uisghe breached, which met with great approval. His second was to declare that all the men should dress in women's attire, and the women in men's.
To be sure, this provoked hilarity; and rightfully so. Dorelei stared at me, clad in her green kirtle, and burst into helpless laughter. It fell to my knees and left my shins bare, and even with the stays unlaced, it strained tight across my shoulders.
“Oh, Imri!” She gasped. “You'll split the seams.” “I'll buy you a new gown,” I promised. “A dozen.” One of my shirts fit over her belly easily enough, but we had to scout around to borrow a pair of drawstring breeches from a stout fellow named Lonn, one of the members of the original garrison. The pants had to be rolled at the ankle many times to keep her from tripping, and pinned to keep them in place.
“You look like a little girl dressed in her father's clothes,” I observed. “A very fat little girl.”
Dorelei swatted at me. “You carry the babe, then! You're dressed for it.”
Throughout the day, the peers of Clunderry waited hand and foot on the commonfolk; or at least pretended to. In truth, all the actual preparations had been completed the day before, and Hoel issued outrageous demands, which were met with pranks.
“You!” He snapped his fingers at me. “Scullery lad! I have heard of this drink you call joie. Bring me a cup!”
I bowed. “At once, my lord.”
In the kitchen, Alais and Kerys rummaged through the pantry cupboards, unstoppering bottles and smelling the contents between giggles. They were both clad in clothes borrowed from Kinadius and looked quite charming, although they were making a fearsome mess.
“Ooh!” Kerys jerked her head back. “Here, my lord. Bitter verjuice.”
“Perfect,” I said.
I served it to Hoel, who took a sip and spat it out. “You call this joie?”
“Oh, yes, my lord,” I said solemnly. “Distilled in the Camaeline Mountains, as cold as ice and burning like fire. Is it not sweet to the tongue?”
So it went throughout the Day of Misrule, culminating at last in a long, drunken feast. After pretending to serve scorched cuts of meat and an uncooked mess of pottage, we relented and brought forth the meal of salt beef stew that had simmered in the kettle overnight, trenchers of bread, cold capons, pickles and sausages, all of which we'd already sampled in the kitchens.
When it was done, Hoel bade us entertain his “court.” Until I die, I will never forget the sight of tattooed Urist, the veteran warrior, declaiming a love poem in a saffron kirtle. Still, Alais and I had conspired beforehand, and we won the biggest laugh when I played a slow quadrille on Hugues' flute and Alais danced slowly with an unhappy-looking Celeste, the wolfhound's paws on her shoulders.
Thus did Clunderry celebrate the year reborn.
Afterward, once the mayhem was over and the mess was cleared, life settled into the same quiet, wintry pace. The sun may have returned, but it would be a long time before the land felt its full warmth. Still, there'd been somewhat purgative about the Day of Misrule. All things considered, I would prefer to celebrate the Longest Night in the D'Angeline manner, but I could see the merit in the Alban tradition. I could think of a number of D'Angeline peers who would benefit from setting aside their dignity for a day and reveling in sheer absurdity.
Days wore on to weeks, one much like another.
I marked the passing of time by the slow, steady rise of Dorelei's belly; and by other changes in her body. Her breasts grew fuller and fuller, and they were passing tender. Her navel protruded under the rising pressure, and there was a faint, dark line on her skin, reaching down from her navel toward her pubis.
It was mayhap a week after the Day of Misrule that I felt the babe move myself for the first time; a slight flutter against my palm as I massaged flaxseed oil into her tight skin.
“Oh,” I said, startled. “Oh!”
Dorelei laughed. “You felt it, then?”
“I did.” I marveled at it. “I really did. Elua! Do you not find it passing strange to think there's a little person in there?”
“Very much so,” she agreed.
Betimes we made love, carefully. It was most comfortable for her to ride astraddle of me, rocking slowly, her burgeoning belly resting on my abdomen. Those were the times I was glad of my bindings. I felt filled with infinite patience, infinite tenderness. I liked to watch Dorelei take her pleasure, her face flushed, black hair clinging to skin damp with sweat. In those moments, I felt my heart full to bursting, and she seemed very beautiful to me.
We spoke of the future, at least in terms of Alba.
We didn't speak of Sidonie.
Not directly, at least. Dorelei made me promise, one night after we'd made love—one of the last times before the discomfort began to outweigh the pleasure—that I would return to Terre d'Ange by the summer's end. Not long ago, I'd have leapt at the offer; now, since I'd felt the babe move, it seemed harder to promise.
“What if you need me here?” I asked.
“I don't.” Her gaze was direct. “Imriel, if you wanted to stay of your own will, nothing would make me happier. But…” She lifted the croonie-stone from my throat. “Your will's not entirely your own, is it?”
“No,” I admitted softly.
Dorelei smiled sadly. “When you come back, I'll know it is.”
“I will,” I said. “I promise.”
“I believe you. I'll always believe you.” She let go the croonie-stone and twined a lock of my hair around her fingers. “I hope the babe has your hair,” she mused. “Look how it curls. I always wanted mine to do that. Though if I had to choose, I'd like her to have your eyes.”
“Or him,” I reminded her.
“Or him.” Her dimples flashed. “A pretty lad with sea-blue eyes …”
She fell silent. It was there, then, between us. I remembered where I'd heard the phrase. Ferghus, the harpist. Tell me, lass, do you love him? The pretty lad with the sea-blue eyes and another's name carved on his heart?
“Dorelei…” I whispered.
She shuddered. “It's going to be terribly complicated, isn't it? When you go home?”
I nodded slowly. It was.
“Will you promise to take care of yourself?” Dorelei asked. She laughed and sniffled all at once. “I don't want to lose you altogether.”
“You won't,” I promised. “Never.”
For ten days in late winter, it snowed steadily, until the snow was hip-deep in places. I put Urist's garrison to work shoveling paths between the cow-byres and the barns where the dried hay was stored, working alongside them myself. It helped break the monotony, and the physical labor felt good. We were all growing lax for lack of exercise.
I kept up the discipline of my Cassiline training, though. The folk of Clunderry no longer stared and giggled, reckoning it merely a harmless eccentricity on my part. A couple of the younger guards—Kinadius and Uven—had grown intrigued and asked me to teach them. I did my best, but I didn't have Joscelin's patience, and 'tis a discipline best learned young. Still, we whittled practice-blades out of wood, and betimes held mock bouts in the hall. It helped pass the time and it kept me sharp.
After the heavy snow, the weather changed. Winter eased its grip. The days began to grow longer and milder and the deep drifts of fluffy snow dwindled into heavy, sodden masses. Children and young people were given license to race around outdoors, flinging snowballs at one another before the snow vanished altogether.
Spring was on its way.
With the harbingers of spring came an unexpected visit from Prince Talorcan. He appeared unannounced at the gates of Clunderry, accompanied by a score of men.
I offered him a fulsome welcome. Most of Clunderry was delighted to see him, especially the Lady Breidaia and Dorelei, happy to have their son and brother visiting. To be sure, Talorcan was a pleasant fellow, well-mannered and reserved. The only time I'd seem behave in a manner that was less than circumspect was the night before my nuptials, when he'd presided over the quarterstaff bouts and placed the antique boar-helmet on my head, and to be honest, I'd been too drunk to remember it well.
But although he greeted his mother with genuine fondness and exclaimed over his sister's enormous belly, I doubted this was a visit of mere courtesy. Alais and I exchanged glances, wondering.
“How long till the babe comes?” Talorcan asked. “You look ready to burst!”
“I feel like it,” Dorelei said. “But Cluna says another month.”
He smiled. “Good old Cluna's attending you?”
She nodded. “Of course.”
It had been a point of contention between us. Cluna and her mother and her mother's mother before her had served as midwife to most of Clunderry, and there was a good deal of dissent over whether or not she was named for the estate, or the estate took its name from her line. Of a surety, her family had been here a very long time, and Cluna was one of the few women the ollamh Firdha considered a friend. Still, she was growing elderly—she'd attended the births of Dorelei and Talorcan—and she was trained as a wise-woman, not a proper chirurgeon. As soon as the weather broke, I'd wanted to send to Terre d'Ange for a chirurgeon, but the women of Clunderry had laughed at me. Dorelei had the final say, and that was an argument I'd lost.