Kushiel's Justice (Page 53)

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We put up Talorcan's men in the garrison and entertained him throughout the day, making small talk over the evening meal. It wasn't until after dinner that he got down to business. Dorelei excused herself early, and I daresay mayhap Lady Breidaia sent round a discreet word, for the rest of the household followed her lead, leaving Alais and me alone with the Cruarch's heir.

Talorcan sat across from us, folding his hands on the table. He was not, I thought, entirely pleased with the way matters had developed. I wished I wasn't bound. I couldn't read him as clearly as I might otherwise.

“It is Prince Imriel who made the proposal,” he said to Alais. “And yet he would not have done so without your consent; or indeed, at your request. Before I give my answer, I would like to hear the reason from your lips, my lady. Why do you wish to postpone our wedding?”

“Your answer, my lord?” I asked politely.

Talorcan shot me a look. “I come as the Cruarch's mouthpiece, of course.” He smiled disarmingly then. “I'm a man shunned, Imriel! Give me leave to ask why.”

“I'm not shunning you, my lord.” Alais frowned. “It's not our custom to wed so young in Terre d'Ange. I agreed to it because settling the matter was supposed to foster continued peace and prosperity between Alba and Terre d'Ange, like Imriel's marriage to your sister.”

“And so it has done,” Talorcan noted.

“Yes, and stirred unrest in Alba!” Alais said tartly. “My lord, my kinsman is bound twofold by Alban magic. I watched his face when the Daughter of the Grove restored his broken bindings. It changed. A brightness went out of it, blown out like a candle-flame.”

“You're afraid,” he said softly.

“Yes.” Alais met his gaze steadily. “Yes, I am. And the gift of my birthright is blind and useless. I came to Alba to learn what it meant to be a daughter of Necthana's line. I wish time to do this. Is a year's grace so much to ask?”

“No.” Talorcan sighed. “No, it is not.”

“So the Cruarch accedes?” I asked.

“He does.” Talorcan's mouth quirked. “And I am given to understand that her majesty Queen Ysandre privately insists upon it until such time as she may be assured the Maghuin Dhonn are not a threat to her daughter. However…” He paused. “It is Lord Drustan's plan that the news be released quietly. At the same time, even more quietly, the news will be released that Master Hyacinthe will not train a successor.”

Alais cocked her head. “Why?”

“Politics,” I murmured.

Talorcan inclined his head. “Master Hyacinthe may be of Tsingani blood, but he is D'Angeline by birth. It may be that some in Alba will perceive the postponing of our wedding as an unfavorable response to his decision. Those who have concerns over Terre d’Ange's influence in Alba will welcome it as such.”

“As opposed to the insistence of the Queen of Terre dAnge?” Alais inquired.

“Yes,” he said.

We all sat in silence for a moment. I didn't like it, but I understood it; and in the end, it was Alais' choice. If she aspired to rule Alba one day, either on her own or at Talorcan's side—who knew my young cousin harbored such ambition?—she was getting her first real taste of Alban statecraft.

“All right,” she said at length. “I'll say naught to counter the notion.” She gave the Cruarch's heir a sudden, dazzling smile. “Thank you, Talorcan.”

I couldn't be sure, but I thought he flushed beneath his warrior's markings. “You're welcome, Alais. I'm sorry. I didn't know you were so scared.”

So the matter was decided. Having delivered the Cruarch's answer, Talorcan departed with promises to return the following month after the babe's birth, although not before giving me a most welcome gift—a letter from Phèdre.

It was old, having been written during the early months of autumn and sent…well, I wasn't entirely sure from whence it had been sent. Of a surety, it had spent long months on the road. According to the letter, Phèdre and Joscelin had elected to travel to Illyria to pay a visit to an old friend, and mayhap conduct some business on behalf of the Queen there.

There was indeed an old friend in Illyria—Kazan Atrabiades, Commander of the Illyrian Merchant Fleet and former pirate. However, I sincerely doubted that Joscelin harbored any deep desire to visit with him. Kazan Atrabiades had been Phèdre's rescuer, once; and her lover, too. With the aid of the Ban of Illyria, Kazan had smuggled her into La Serenissima in time to prevent the assassination of Queen Ysandre. It was Joscelin who had done the actual preventing, but without Kazan, neither of them would have been there.

That was another of the many stories whose details I'd learned from Gilot.

Strange to think, if it hadn't been for an Illyrian pirate I'd never met, my mother's scheme might well have succeeded. I'd been a babe of six months' age; neither Sidonie or Alais had been born. At that time, my aging father was still Ysandre's heir.

And I…

I might be the King of Terre d'Ange by now.

The thought made me shudder.

It made me think, too, about what Dorelei had said of the Maghuin Dhonn; how it might drive one mad to know too much, to see too many possible futures. I was glad my life was free of such burdensome gifts. Merely surviving without doing harm seemed chore enough.

At any rate, I didn't believe the letter; or at least not wholly. They might have gone to Illyria, but I suspected it was a starting point and not an end. Wherever they were, I suspected, very strongly, it had to do with my theory about whatever they'd been plotting at Stormkeep and the pages of the lost Book of Raziel.

That suspicion, I kept to myself.

If you've need of aught, Phèdre had written, speak to Ti-Philippe. He knows Montrève's business. Take the best of care of yourself and Dorelei and the babe-to-come. May Blessed Elua hold and keep you until our swift return.

Well and so, I thought; Ti-Philippe knows. That was good. He'd been Phèdre's man since before I was born. Cheerful and irreverent as he was, he was loyal to the bone, and I thought he'd sooner die than divulge her secrets.

It saddened me a bit to think that they wouldn't be here to attend the birth. It made me feel older, too. I was a man grown, and soon to be a father. It was heartening to know they trusted me to handle it without their assistance. Still, it would have been a comfort to have them here.

Especially after Urist's discovery.

'Twas a few days after Talorcan had departed. Urist begged a word of me without saying why. His face was grim as he led me across the fields, past the ollamh's stone hut and into the woods. Pale green leaves were budding on the beech trees, the oaks were beginning to bear fuzzy catkins and new undergrowth was sprouting through the loam. For a time, we followed the trail that led to the oak grove and the standing stones, and then Urist turned toward the south. He moved silently in the woods, and I did my best to follow his lead.

“There.” He pointed.

It was an oak tree, flakes of dry bark rubbed off to expose the pale, reddish new layer beneath. I looked closely. There was coarse brown hair snagged in the rough grooves.

“Bear sign,” I murmured.

Urist nodded. “There's another one, too, with claw marks. Do you want to see it?”

“One's enough,” I said. “How did you find it?”

“Marec the Thatcher spotted it,” he said. “Hunting squirrels, I reckon. I didn't ask.” He shrugged. “Could be natural.”

“And it could be one of them” I said. “Post extra sentries on the woods' edge, and give Marec the reward you promised. Tell him you'll double it if he spots an actual bear. Preferably of the ordinary den-dwelling, cub-rearing sort.”

Urist gave another nod. “And if it's not?”

I checked my bindings. They were firm. “Let's hope it is.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

I was loath to tell Dorelei about the bear sign. She was so near to her term with the babe, I hated to trouble her; and in truth, she'd grown unwontedly moody and irritable in recent days. I didn't blame her. She did indeed look ready to burst, her feet were swollen, and her back ached somewhat fierce.I did, though. I'd had a bellyful of keeping secrets from people I cared about in Tiberium, and I reckoned I owed her honesty.

And in the end, it didn't matter.

When Morwen of the Maghuin Dhonn appeared, she did it openly.

It was late in the afternoon, and I was sitting in the sunlit salon with Dorelei, keeping her company while her mother and the other women embroidered and chattered. Work around Clunderry had resumed after the long, idle months of winter—the cattle had been driven to the farther pastures, and fields were being plowed and manured in preparation for next month's sowing—but I'd decided to forgo working alongside my people in favor of spending time with my wife.

We were trying to settle on a name for the babe. We'd agreed it should bear an Alban name, but Dorelei thought it should be a name not wholly unfamiliar to the D'Angeline tongue, and I agreed.

“By all rights, if it's a boy, it should be named after your father,” Breidaia observed.

Dorelei and I exchanged a glance. “I loved him and miss him, Mother, but Gartnach doesn't fall smoothly from D'Angeline lips,” she said. “Anyway, what if it's a girl?”

It was at that moment we heard the clamor; running feet and a horn blowing. Kinadius burst into the salon, wild-eyed. “Bear-witch!”

I leapt to my feet. “Where?”

He pointed in the general direction of the woods. “She just…she just walked right out of the woods. That woman, the one with the pale eyes.” His throat worked as he swallowed. “Urist is there, dozens of us with weapons drawn, and the ollamh, and …and Lady Alais.” He licked his lips. “She wants to speak to you, my lord.”

“Alais?” I asked stupidly.

Kinadius shook his head. “The bear-witch,” he whispered. “Says she's come to offer a bargain.”

I drew a sharp breath. Dorelei levered herself to her feet with difficulty. Her face had turned white, but it was set and determined. “I'm going with you.”

“The hell you are,” I said.

Her eyes flashed. “The hell I am!”

“Fine.” I turned to Kinadius. “Get the rest of the garrison.”

He obeyed without a word. It was an imposing delegation that turned out to confront Morwen. If I hadn't been in a grim mind-set, I might have felt foolish. Morwen stood calmly at the edge of the woods, a few feet behind the carved stone marker that indicated it was taisgaidh land. She appeared small and harmless, clad in a coarse brown dress, her feet bare and grimy, but her mist-pale eyes didn't blink between the tattooed claw marks on her face, and Urist and his lads held her at bay, hunting bows drawn. Firdha was there, looking disturbed, and Alais beside her. The wolfhound Celeste was growling softly deep in her throat.

Morwen ignored them all, ignored the scores of new arrivals, looking past them to meet my eyes. She inclined her head, ignoring Dorelei on my arm. “Prince Imriel.”

“Morwen,” I said. “What do you want?”

“You sought to make a bargain with the Maghuin Dhonn,” she said. “I come to offer one. Will you hear it?”

Dorelei's fingers dug into my arm. “Speak your piece,” I said tightly.

“It seems the future has chosen its course. I wish to show you a glimpse of what will come,” Morwen said. “In exchange, I will give you the mannekin charm you covet. The Maghuin Dhonn will relinquish all claim on you.”

My heart gave a fierce leap in my breast, but I schooled my features to stone. “Why?”

“You will understand when you see,” she said.

“Why should we trust you ?” Dorelei asked. Her brow was damp with sweat, but her voice was cool. “You've done us nothing but harm.”

“Have I?” Morwen smiled slightly. “All throughout these endless winter months, you've had a husband who loves you to warm your bed, Dorelei mab Breidaia. Can you say of a surety it would have been so without Alban magic to tame his restless heart?”

“No,” Dorelei said steadily. “But I would have welcomed the chance to try.”

A flicker of uncertainty crossed Morwen's face. “It is too late.”

“Too late for what?” I asked.

“Many things.” The uncertainty vanished. “Knots are undone, the skein is unraveled. If naught changes, only one thread is certain. Will you see it and understand?”

I took a deep breath. “How?”

“Come with me tonight to the standing stones,” Morwen said. “And by the light of the full moon, I will show you.” I made no answer. “The oath of the Maghuin Dhonn stands, Prince Imriel. By all that is holy, I swear I will do you no harm. You may bring your men if you wish. They may not enter the ring, but they may stand outside it and watch.” She read my face. “Once it begins, I will give you the charm. As soon as it ends, you may destroy it. You will be free. Free of all bindings, free of all claims. Free to welcome your son into the world as your own true self.”

“This is a trick,” Dorelei murmured.

“No,” Morwen shifted her gaze and fixed her pale eyes on her. “No trick, little sister. You will be free, too; you and your kinswomen. Free to dream, free to see past the fog that clouds your vision. It is the gift of your bloodline, of blood we share. You hunger for it, do you not?”

Dorelei swallowed. “Not enough to trust you.”

The bear-witch shrugged. “Then you will hunger all your life, all of you, for visions that will not come. Imriel is bound to us, and you are bound to him.”