Kushiel's Justice (Page 58)

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There was no answer. I thought about what Sister Nehailah had said. It is in my heart that even he cannot protect us from ourselves.

It was true. In the end, that was the crux of the matter. Dorelei and our son had died because I was in love with someone else. Oh, there were other reasons, but I couldn't hide from that truth. If I hadn't loved Sidonie, there would have been no mannekin charm, no dark magic with which the Maghuin Dhonn could attempt to twist my fate and alter the future.

And yet, despite all of it, knowing it, Dorelei's last wish had been to send me back to Sidonie.

“Why did she do it?” I asked. “Why?”

There was no answer, but none was needed. In my heart, I knew. Dorelei had loved me. She'd loved me in that awful, glorious, maddening way I hadn't been able to love her. She had known me well enough to know that if aught happened to her, I would blame myself, punish myself. She had wanted, more than anything, for me to be free; and yes, to be happy.

How in the world that could come to pass, I couldn't imagine.

I rested my hands on my thighs and bowed my head. There were the strings of red yarn tied around my wrists; one faded and worn, one bright and new. During my convalescence, I'd barely even been aware of them. The croonie-stone around my neck weighed no more than a feather. I'd have borne them lightly, gladly, for the rest of my life if it would have brought Dorelei and our son back. If it would have undone that terrible, terrible night.

Nothing would, though.

Not even vengeance.

“I'll do my best, love,” I whispered, touching the earth. Somewhere beneath Alba's soil my wife and unborn son rested. ” 'Tis a hard thing you ask of me. I will see you avenged, that I swear. But I'll try not to let it consume me altogether.” I swallowed my tears. “Not to let it make me bitter and twisted.”

I rose, feeling a little bit better. When I turned, I saw Sister Nehailah watching me. Dusk was falling, and her bright golden hair glowed. She didn't speak when I approached her, merely smiled with sorrow and compassion, touching my hand.

On the morrow, we set sail to cross the Straits.

It was a somber farewell. Not even a year ago, I'd arrived on Alban soil, a D'Angeline prince with a wife he didn't want, hiding my misery behind a smiling mask. I was leaving as a widowed Prince of Alba, and the heart that had weighed heavy as a stone last summer felt shattered and hollow.

Any other year, Drustan would have sailed with us, but this year he was delaying his visit to Terre d'Ange in order to stay abreast of the hunt for Berlik. He gave a packet of letters into Urist's keeping, then clasped my hand soberly. “I'll send word.”

I nodded. “As will we.”

His grip tightened on my hand. “You will always be family.”

I wondered if the Cruarch of Alba would say that if he knew his niece's last request was to send me home to his daughter. My eyes burned and I had to choke back a mad laugh. “Thank you, my lord.”

Alais was the hardest. She clung to me, hard enough to make my healing wounds ache. I ignored the pain and wrapped my arms around her, resting my chin on her curly head. “Elua bless and keep you, little sister,” I whispered. “Be safe and well.”

“Oh, Imri!” She pulled away and looked at me, tearstained. “You, too.”

There wasn't anything else to say.

We boarded the Cruarch's flagship. Urist had recruited a score of men, all members of Clunderry's garrison, including Kinadius, who had left Talorcan's search to accompany us. We nodded at one another. He would take half the men and begin searching in Azzalle, asking questions, while the rest of us went on to the City of Elua.

The rowers set to on the oars and the ship eased into the harbor. Our royal escort stayed, watching. Drustan stood behind Alais, his hands on her shoulders. In the distance behind them rose the walls of Bryn Gorrydum, draped with black for mourning. I stood at the railing with one hand raised in farewell, watching them dwindle.

Watching Alba dwindle.

I did weep, then, for the first time in days. Silent tears, running down my cheeks, mingling with the salt spray of the ocean. After a time—a long time, I think—Urist came over and patted my shoulder awkwardly with a hard, callused hand. “Rest, my lord. The healer said so.”

I had promised to obey.

I rested.

We sailed into Pointe des Soeurs the following morning. A month ago, my heart would have leapt at the sight of the shore of Terre d’Ange looming larger in my vision, the land stretching behind it. Now I felt numb.

Pointe des Soeurs had been a lonely fortress once. Like Bryn Gorrydum, it had grown a great deal. There was an escort awaiting us on the dock. I thought that they would be disappointed to learn that the Cruarch was not aboard, but I was wrong. Word had already been sent. During the long days I'd spent in my sickbed, there had been a great deal of correspondence back and forth across the Straits.

I knew that, of course, but all my thoughts had been focused on the hunt for Berlik. Somehow, I'd not given thought to the fact that all of Terre d'Ange knew of my loss. It made me feel vulnerable and exposed.

It didn't help matters that it was Bertran de Trevalion waiting to receive us. When I thought about it later, it made sense. Pointe des Soeurs lay within the duchy of Trevalion's holdings; he was a high-ranking young nobleman known to have been my friend.

No one knew, not even Bertran himself, that his mother had tried to have me killed.

On the dock, he greeted me with a sincere bow, sympathy written all over his open, earnest face. “Your highness, House Trevalion offers its profound condolences.”

“Thank you, Bertran.” I fought back a swell of grief. “That's kind.”

He nodded. “I'm awfully sorry, Imri. Truly.”

All the faces of the people around him were somber and grave. D'Angeline faces. I was home, and I felt like a stranger. I took more comfort in the presence of Urist and his men. Home. Clunderry had become a home. I wished I was there, watching Dorelei smile at the breakfast table while Kinadius teased his sister. The Cruithne were silent, and I daresay they felt the same way.

But we were here to seek vengeance.

The thought strengthened me.

I thanked Bertran again for his courtesy. The ascent to the fortress was steep, and he'd brought a litter chair with bearers to convey me. I felt like a fool sitting in it, and the Bastard, freed from the confines of the hold, eyed me skeptically; but I knew I couldn't ride and I wasn't sure I could make the climb on foot. When the bearers stepped forward to grasp the poles, Urist shook his head. “We will do it,” he said in heavily accented D'Angeline. “He is the lord of Clunderry and we are his men.”

Bertran looked startled. “As you wish.”

We stayed in the fortress that night. For a mercy, Bertran had the good sense not to plague me with too much hospitality. He met with Urist, Kinadius, and me and told us in a straightforward manner that there had been no sightings of pale-eyed bears or tattooed magicians reported throughout Azzalle.

“You're sure he's here?” he asked.

Deep in my bones, I was. I was sure that the bear Hyacinthe had seen was Berlik. He was forsworn; his people were forsworn because of him. I'd seen the sorrow in his eyes. He would flee Alba. He would take himself as far, far away from his people as he could, carrying his curse and his darkness with him, trying to protect them.

“I'm sure he crossed the Straits,” I said. “He left a trail. We'll find it.”

Bertran shrugged. “I hope you do.”

Before he retired for the night, he provided us with maps of Azzalle with markings that indicated where questions had been asked, where they hadn't. We pored over them, plotting a course of action.

Urist and I were the last two awake. Although I was tired and sore, I was reluctant to take to my bed. In a strange way, it felt like it would sever my last waking bond to Alba, and Dorelei. And so we sat, the two of us, drinking wine in front of the hearth, our feet propped on a low table.

“You've not cut them,” Urist said unexpectedly.

I blinked. “Cut what?”

“The ollamh's bindings.” He nodded at my wrists. “You're on D'Angeline soil.”

I'd forgotten. “Do you think I should?” My head was swimming a little from the wine. “I'm not sure it matters here. Do they still work? I don't even know what I feel anymore, Urist.” I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Anyway, what if the priests are wrong? If Berlik has the charm, and he's here, I don't want to take any chances.”

“Here.” Urist sat upright and fished in a pouch at his belt, proffering an object.

I stared at it, the blood pounding in my veins.

The charm, a grimy little mannekin, lay in his hardened palm. It was a vile object, wrought of Alban dirt and clay and the essence of my desire, seed spilled carelessly on taisghaidh land. The cause of untold suffering.

“You had it all along,” I said slowly.

“Oh, aye.” Urist nodded. “'Twas there in the stone circle, where you left it, near the dead bear-witch.” His black eyes held mine without wavering. “What was I to do, lad? I've never withheld a truth from Drustan. But I made the lass a promise, and I never had children of my own. I'm a warrior. I made her a warrior's promise. This seemed the surest way to be certain you were sent away from Alba.”

“Damn you, Urist!” I knuckled my eyes. “How do we destroy it?”

“I asked the ollamh” he said steadily. “Like this.” His hand clenched.

The mannekin crumbled. As simply as that, it was destroyed. Urist held his hand over his wine cup, releasing a stream of grainy dirt that sank into the dark liquid and vanished. He handed me the cup. “Cast it on the fire.”

“That's all?” I asked.

“That's all,” he said.

I leaned forward. My wounds twinged. I jerked my hand. Wine and dirt and careless seed spattered. The fire flared and hissed. Smoke rose up the chimney.

“Throw the cup, too,” Urist murmured.

I hurled it, hard. It burst into a dozen shards.

“Done.” He plucked a knife from his belt. “Give me your hands. I'll cut the bindings.”

“Urist.” I hesitated. “Do you know why Dorelei asked this of you? I don't ask for myself, not this time.”

He fixed me with his hard gaze. “She didn't say it in plain words, but I've an idea. You moped your way across this land at the outset, yearning for someone that wasn't her. I watched you, boy. You grieved the lass. She loved you despite it. And somehow, you managed to make yourself worthy of her. I wouldn't be here if you hadn't.”

“I tried,” I whispered.

Urist gave me a curt nod. “She knew.” He took my left hand, laying it palm-upward across his knees, wedging the point of his knife beneath the yarn. It was too soon, too sudden. I tried to withdraw my hand, struggling feebly. Name of Elua! I was weak.

“Urist!” I sharpened my voice. “She never told you who, did she?”

“Does it matter?” he asked.

“It will matter a great deal to the Cruarch of Alba and the Queen of Terre d'Ange.” My voice broke. “A great deal, Urist.”

His mouth gaped. It looked very red in his blue-whorled face. He stared at me without speaking for a long moment, then closed his mouth and licked his lips. “The royal heir? Drustan's eldest?”

I nodded. “I love her. That's …that's how the bear-witch was able to bind me. That's what these bindings are protecting me from.” I swallowed. “My feelings for her. And when you cut the bindings, I'll feel it again. All of it.”

He stared some more. “And Dorelei knew?”

“Yes.” My eyes stung. “Dorelei knew.”

Urist took a deep breath. “I gave her my oath. This girl, does she love you?”

“I think so,” I said. “But Urist…trust me, Queen Ysandre will not be pleased about this. What you unleash in me could set the entire realm at odds.”

“So you were good enough for the Cullach Gorrym, good enough to marry Dorelei mab Breidaia, good enough to beget Alba a successor, but not good enough for the Queen's daughter?” Urist's lips curled with scorn. The tip of his knife flicked upward. “Well, that's what I think of that, lad.”

The red yarn parted and fell.

Something in my heart opened. There wasn't the vast, inrushing swell of emotion I'd felt in Bryn Gorrydum when I'd removed the croonie-stone and read Sidonie's letter, nor the creeping, insidious tide I'd felt when the binding had broken the night of the cattle-raid. It was subtle, a sense of relief and ease, as though someone had removed a heavy pack I'd been carrying so long, I'd forgotten I bore it.

Something wrong in the world was righted.

I was free.

I took the knife from Urist's hand and cut the binding on my other wrist, then removed my boots and cut the bindings from my ankles. I held the yarn in my hand, remembering. You're like a parcel I can't unwrap, Dorelei had said. Consider it mere adornment, I'd told her. We'd made love in our narrow bed in Innisclan, laughing and hushing one another. I wondered if that was the time we'd gotten our son. I threw the yarn on the fire, then untangled the croonie-stone's thong from my torc and pulled it over my head. I put it in the pocket of my baggy breeches to keep for remembrance.

It was done.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

On the morrow, we set out for the City of Elua.Bertran wanted to escort us himself, but the thought of travelling for days in his company made my head ache. I begged him instead to stay in Azzalle and give whatever aid he might to Kinadius and his men in their search for Berlik's trail, and at length, he agreed. He insisted I take a fine carriage belonging to House Trevalion, to which I acceded.