Kushiel's Justice (Page 57)

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I thought about it. “Well, you did tell me about the man with two faces. It helped me remember Lucius was my friend, and that may have made a difference in Lucca.”

“I had another true dream about you, once,” Alais said softly. “Do you remember?”

“Did it involve a snowstorm and a barren tree?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I dreamed we were brother and sister, really and truly.” I didn't say anything. Alais smiled sadly. “I thought it meant you were to wed Dorelei and I was to wed Talorcan. I think I may have been wrong about that. Firdha says one of the most dangerous things you can do is apply your own desires to a dream's meaning.”

“Alais …” I murmured.

“It's all right.” She drew her knees up beneath the skirt of her gown, wrapping her arms around them. “I don't know why I was so upset about it. You and Sidonie.” She cocked her head, considering. “No, that's not true. I was jealous. You were always mine, Imri.” I raised my brows, and Alais laughed. “Well, not like that! Like…”

“Like a brother?” I suggested.

Alais nodded. “I love Sidonie, I do. Not many people know her well. She's very …careful. But it can be hard to be her younger sister. Everything was always set, everything was certain for her. She's the Dauphine. She's the pretty one, the proper one, the one who never gets her clothing torn, or spills her food, or blurts out the wrong thing at the wrong time, or gets forgotten, or cares what anyone thinks.”

I thought about linen ripping beneath my fingers and Sidonie's voice at my ear, gasping ragged entreaties, and despite the pang of guilt that came with it, I smiled for the first time since Dorelei's death. “That's not really true, you know.”

“Well, it always felt like it.” Alais smiled too, wistfully. “And then there was you, Imri. I was too young to remember the arguments, and anyway, I didn't care. I only knew you were brave and strong and kind, and a little bit wild and dangerous, but in a good way. Like a fierce, loyal dog that no one else can pet. And you'd had adventures; terrible adventures and wonderful adventures. And you weren't afraid of anything, but you always listened to me and treated me like a real person.”

Her description startled me. “Is that how I seemed?”

“Oh, yes!” Alais' face glowed. “And everyone else except Phèdre and Joscelin was too stupid to see it; too stupid to see you, the real you. That made you mine.”

“Oh, Alais!” My throat tightened. As though her words had dislodged a core of grief trapped deep in me, I started crying again; deep, racking sobs that made my chest ache.

Fearless, she'd said. Ah, Elua! I'd been anything but.

I wept for the child I'd been, masking terror that made me awaken thrashing and screaming in the night. I wept for the man I'd become, trying to be good and making a mess of it. I wept for Sidonie, who had reckoned the cost of our dalliance so much better than I, and yet had taken the rare risk of being careless.

I wept for love's terrible price.

I wept for Dorelei, who had been brave and strong and kind, and taught me to be the things I only pretended to be. Who had forced me to confront my own insufferable self-absorption with courage and honesty. I wept for her warm, brown skin that had smelled like fresh-baked bread, for the dimples that showed in her cheeks when she smiled, truly smiled.

And I wept for our son, who never had a chance.

It felt like being torn apart; and yet the chirurgeon Girard was right. There was healing in it. I was aware, distantly, of Alais' alarm. She went to fetch the chirurgeon, and I heard his gentle voice telling her not to worry, to let my grief run its course.

And in time it did.

When it passed, I was limp and exhausted and hollow. My chest and abdomen ached with a deep, burning pain, and I could tell my healing wounds had been opened anew. But I felt calmer, like the sky after a terrible storm has passed, discharging all its fury.

Alais was still there, watching me fearfully. “I'm sorry, Imri,” she whispered. “I didn't mean to make you cry.”

“It's not your fault.” I dragged my forearm over my swollen eyes, then shifted and patted the bed. “Come here.” She came over and curled up beside me. I ran my hand over her black curls. “Whatever happens, in my heart, you'll always be a sister to me, Alais. I couldn't ask for a better one.”

She swallowed. “I'm so sorry about Dorelei. I miss her.”

“So do I.” I closed my eyes. “So do I, villain.”

“You loved her after all, didn't you?” she asked. “In the end?”

“I did.” I stroked her hair. “It was hard not to.”

“But not like you love Sidonie?”

“No.” I opened my eyes and met her solemn gaze. “No, that was different. I'm sorry if it was hurtful to you, Alais. I didn't intend it to be. Neither of us did.”

“I think Sidonie must love you very much,” she mused.

“Do you?” I asked.

Alais nodded. “I do. She's like that. She's very fierce, even though it doesn't show.”

I couldn't help but smile. “Oh, I know.”

She made a face. “It's a little strange to think about, Imri.”

“Well, don't think about it,” I suggested.

“But I might have to, mightn't I?” Alais considered me. “I'll do it if you promise to stop thinking about dying.”

“Oh, you will, will you?” I tugged at one of her curls. “I'll be honest. It hurts, Alais, at least right now. It feels an awful lot like dishonoring Dorelei's memory.”

“You smiled, though,” she said shrewdly. “I saw it. Anyway, Dorelei wouldn't want you to die, Imri. She'd want you to go on living. And she would want you to be happy. I know.”

“It's complicated.” I shrugged. “We'll see.”

Alais kissed my cheek, then clambered out of bed. “I have to go,” she said. “It's getting late, and you should rest. I think Messire Girard wants to check your bandages, too.” She stood for a moment, pursing her lips. “There's something else you should know.”

I peered at her. “Oh?”

“Father got a message last night,” she said. “Hyacinthe was watching in his sea-mirror. He saw a bear climb out of the water on the far side of the Straits, yesterday morning, in Azzalle. It lay on the shore for a long time. He thought it was odd.”

A cold, satisfying rage rose in me. “Did he kill it?”

“No.” She frowned. “He said that he couldn't be sure. He's seen other bears, dozens of them, and he's not going to start calling down the lightning to purge the earth of them.” She shuddered. “We…we told him to look for a bear with pale eyes, but he couldn't tell. Do you think a bear could swim that far? Father didn't.”

It was at least seven leagues across the Straits at the narrowest part. “I don't know,” I said. “But if I were Berlik, I'd try”

“That's what I thought,” Alais said.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Alais' words gave me a reason to live.I wanted vengeance.

I'd known hatred before. In Daršanga, I'd hated to the depths of my young soul. I'd hated the mad Mahrkagir and his terrible ka-Magi, and Jagun the Tatar warlord who had seared my flesh with a burning brand, marking me like cattle. I'd hated them with sick, helpless loathing, and I'd gloated over their deaths.

This was different.

It was a pure, clean, righteous fury, cleansing as fire. Life was distilled to a simple purpose. I was a man, not a child. I was not helpless. I would heal and regain my strength. I would hunt down Berlik and kill him, and then I would bring his skull back to Clunderry to be buried at Dorelei's feet for all eternity.

It had seemed like a barbaric custom, once. Now I understood it.

I became a model patient. Since I would not be allowed to travel until the chirurgeon Girard said I was ready, I heeded every word of advice that he gave me. I suffered my bandages to be changed, my wounds bathed and salved. I ate everything I was given, drank every tonic. I slept when he told me to rest, my conscience soothed by the clarity of my purpose. When he allowed me to get up and walk about, I did. When he told me not to overexert myself, I didn't.

I resolved to make myself as cold and hard as a blade, keen and ruthless.

Alais came every day to keep me company. She told me how the hunt for Berlik was progressing. Mostly, it wasn't. There was no sign of him in Alba, and the Maghuin Dhonn who had been found professed a terrified innocence. She told me that Drustan had imprisoned several of them and put them several to hard questioning, but he hadn't killed anyone yet. She told me that Drustan had written to Bernadette de Trevalion to bid her spread word throughout Azzalle to search for a bear with pale eyes, or a man with bear-claws tattooed on his face. I thought what a grim piece of irony it would be if the woman who'd tried to have me killed for the sake of stale vengeance became the agent of Kushiel's justice.

Days passed.

Bit by bit, my body healed.

It was Urist, of all people, who tempered my resolve. He paid me a visit, bringing with him my daggers and vambraces, which he had retrieved from the stone circle when Talorcan had ordered him to fetch Morwen's body. My throat tightened at the sight of the vambraces, remembering Dorelei buckling them on my arms that terrible night, but I didn't weep. I told him that once we were on D'Angeline soil, I meant to begin hunting for Berlik. I asked for his aid; for the sake of Dorelei, for the honor of Clunderry.

I thought he'd give it unstinting, but then, I thought he'd have ridden with Talorcan, too. Instead, Urist gave me a long look. “I'll do it on one condition. You're to return to the City of Elua first.”

“And lose weeks?” I scowled. “Name of Elua! Why?”

“There's no proof that bear-witch bastard's crossed the Straits. And you're not going to be fit to ride for at least a month, anyway,” he said. “I talked to that D'Angeline healer. He said he'll consent to allow you to travel in another day or two, so long as you do it as an invalid. Litter or carriage.”

“That's not an answer,” I observed.

“True.” Urist sat upright in the bedchamber's single chair, hands on his knees, facing me. He'd sat just so the night we'd talked about the cattle-raid on Briclaedh, only he looked older and wearier. “My lord, your wife was a sweet lass. And no matter what anyone says, her blood's on both our hands, isn't it?”

It was a relief to hear someone acknowledge it. “Yes,” I said. “It is.”

“Guilt's a hard burden to bear,” he mused. “Take it from a man who killed his own brother, traitor though he was. Believe me, I want vengeance for the lass as much as you do.” He smiled ruefully beneath his worn, blurred warrior's tattoos. “When all's said and done, you weren't a bad husband to her, nor a bad lord to Clunderry, either. She loved you. She knew you, too; better than you knew her, I'll wager.”

“I'll wager you're right,” I murmured.

“I promised her I'd do this if anything happened to her before the babe was born,” he said. “See you home.”

My eyes stung. I tilted my head and gazed at the ceiling. “Why?”

Urist was silent a moment. “She said if I didn't, she feared you'd let guilt and anger eat out your heart. She said you'd understand.”

I did and I didn't. Dorelei had known. She'd known about Sidonie; she'd known me. I didn't want to go. I didn't think I could bear to face that guilt, not yet. And yet, nor did I want to deny Dorelei's spirit her final wish. I drew a shaking breath. “And if I do …?”

“I'll stand by you.” Urist looked at me without blinking. “Honor your wife's last wish, lad, and I'll ride to the ends of the earth to get vengeance for her.”

“Your word?” I asked.

He nodded. “My word.”

I got to my feet and clasped his hand. “So be it.”

Urist had spoken truly; that evening, Girard told me he thought I'd be fit to travel after another day's convalescence. He made me promise that I would continue to heed his advice, that I would confine myself to travelling by carriage or litter.

I agreed readily. By now, I could move my arms freely without pain and walk for short distances, but I couldn't even wear real clothing. I was forced to wear a loose-fitting shirt to cover my bandages, and a pair of baggy drawstring breeches that reminded me horribly of the breeches Dorelei had donned for the Day of Misrule, when she'd laughed so hard at the sight of me wearing her kirtle. I'd tried putting on my sword-belt, but my wounds were knitting, and the hard rhinoceros-hide chafed and dug into the tender flesh.

So it was decided. Drustan was notified and the arrangements were made.

I was going home.

On my last evening, I went to the temple proper. Sister Nehailah had visited me in my sickbed, of course. The first time, shortly after I'd emerged from darkness, she had simply offered her deepest condolences. The second time, she had spoken words intended to be consoling. I'd thanked her for her courtesy and told her I was in no fit mood to hear about the mysterious agencies of Elua's mercy.

Somehow, I felt different after talking with Urist.

The effigy of Elua was similar to the one installed at Clunderry. It was located in the central courtyard, an open area left to grow wild. I couldn't bring myself to kiss the effigy's feet, but I knelt in the grass and gazed at his face.

“If you wished to punish me for failing to heed your precept, my lord, I would that you had punished me” I murmured. “Dorelei was innocent.”