Kushiel's Justice (Page 61)

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“There's a meal near ready.” Urist sniffed the air. “Coneys and capons, all sorts of good things. Odd place, this.” He cocked his head. “Do they bring prisoners here?”

“Prisoners?” I asked. “No. Why?”

“Well, there's a room…” His voice trailed off. He put his hands on his knees and fixed me with his direct gaze. “No mind. My lord, what do you plan to do?”

I took a deep, experimental breath, looking down at myself, watching my wounds strain. It didn't feel too bad. They were deepest over my chest and ribs, trailing off at the ends. The scabs were already flaking at my shoulder and hip, revealing pink new skin. “Give me another day. I ought to be able to sit a horse by then. We'll move faster for it.”

Urist nodded. “Fair enough. What about the girl?”

I glanced up at him. “I don't know, Urist. I hope to see her before we leave. She may come, she may not. She may not be able to. She will if she can.”

“And if there's pursuit?” he asked. “If your Queen wants to clap you in chains?”

I took another deep breath, prodding my healing flesh. “I don't think I've a choice. I wouldn't be able to keep up with you on a hard flight. As for you and your men, whether to submit or flee …” I spread my hands. “That's your choice. I'd sooner have you hunting Berlik than waiting for the Cruarch to sort this all out, or at least your part in it. But it could be dangerous.”

Urist snorted. “Life's dangerous, lad.”

“I tried to warn you,” I said.

He shrugged. “When all's said and done, you've done naught wrong, nor have we. Queen Ysandre's got a name for being a fair and just ruler. She's angry, aye; like as not, angriest of all at her daughter. Betrayal comes harder when it's blood. 'Tis easier to blame you for it, and she may, but I doubt she'll do aught rash.”

His words made me feel better. “You've a way of putting matters into perspective.”

“You're young.” Urist smiled slightly. “You'll learn the trick of it.”

“I hope so,” I said.

Sidonie didn't come that day, nor did anyone else. We spent the day making preparations to travel once more; sorting through out stores, tending to our mounts, sharpening our swords, restringing bows. In consultation with Urist, I drew up a list of goods we needed, and spoke to Isembart regarding sending a servant into the City to purchase them at market.

We would need money, too. Drustan had provided Urist with sufficient funds for our journey here, but not enough for prolonged travel. I hadn't thought about that in my precipitous flight from the City. I wrote out a letter of request drawing on the accounts of my own neglected estates, which Isembart readily agreed to have delivered to Hugues to present to my factor. One had the sense that if I'd asked for a cameleopard and a troupe of acrobats to entertain us on the morrow, he'd have promised it without hesitation.

Like as not, my time would have been better spent resting, but my nerves were strung too tight. Anger, guilt, longing, grief…my emotions were at war with one another. A part of me wished we'd simply left the City and kept going, ill-provisioned or no. A part wished I'd stayed at the Palace to face the storm of acrimony. A part wished the Queen would send someone to fetch me, to force matters to a head.

It wasn't until nightfall, when it was obvious that no one was coming, that I felt my tension ease. Isembart's staff prepared a sumptuous meal, the second of the day. Aside from Timor and Gilbrid, who were on sentry duty, we all dined together. The dining hall was ostensibly a rustic affair, with rough wooden beams crossing the high ceiling and a great hearth where a roaring fire would be laid in winter, but the meal was served on plates of gleaming white porcelain, so fine they were nearly translucent, and eaten with gilded utensils, their handles wrought in the interlocking key pattern that was the emblem of House Shahrizai.

It made me smile to see Urist and the others fumble with their forks and spoons, surreptitiously resorting to belt knives and bare hands. I didn't care. They were warriors, not courtiers. I set down my own spoon and picked up a steaming bowl of venison broth, putting it to my lips and slurping. Others followed suit with relieved alacrity, woad-stained hands gripping the delicate bowls gingerly.

It would have made Dorelei laugh.

I wished she were here to see it.

'Twas a melancholy thought, but there was sweetness in it, too. There had been good times between us, many of them. I might have lost sight of that if she hadn't extracted this promise from Urist. During the days of my convalescence, when I had thought only of vengeance, I'd hardened my purpose by remembering her death. Her open, unseeing eyes, head turned at an unnatural angle. Blood soaking the cloak that covered her. The knowledge that beneath it lay our son, so near to full term, slain in the womb.

I wouldn't forget. I would never forget.

But I would remember her alive, too. The delight in her dimpled smile, the way she'd laugh when I played the song about the little brown goat. Her shy pleasure when she had presented me with the vambraces she'd had made for me.

All those things, and a thousand others. And above all else, I would never forget that if I ever found happiness in my life, somewhere on the far side of vengeance, I would owe it all to Dorelei mab Breidaia, my wife.

Chapter Forty-One

In the late morning of the following day, Sidonie came. After the first day, I'd steeled myself against expecting her. In the midst of a dramatic moment, her promise had sounded well and good, but in the cold light of reason, I thought it unlikely that Ysandre would permit it. The Queen was a stubborn woman.But then, so was her daughter.

Urist's sentries let them pass. I was in the armory, testing hunting bows, trying to gauge the measure of my slowly returning strength against the sort of draw required to slow down a charging bear. I didn't believe it when Isembart came to fetch me.

“Forgive me, my lord,” he said politely. “I understood your orders were to admit the Dauphine. Mayhap I was mistaken.”

“No,” I said. “Elua, no!”

I hurried to the receiving salon, my heart racing. I felt unaccountably nervous. I hadn't been yesterday. Whatever I'd felt, it had been too incomprehensible and vast to admit mere nerves. Today it was different. And I still wasn't entirely sure it was true.

It was, though.

Sidonie was there, accompanied by a dozen guards. Palace Guards, clad in livery of Courcel blue, but there were vertical stripes of a paler blue on their doublets, too. Maslin de Lombelon, who was mercifully not present, had been wearing one yesterday. She was of age now. She had her own personal guard. Mavros had said they were loyal to her. They must be, I thought, to accompany her here.

An attendant was taking Sidonie's cloak when I entered the room.

It was rain-dappled, and there were drops of rain in her hair. She was wearing a gown of amber silk. And although she was looking away, she turned her head toward me when I entered, the way it had been between us for so long.

“You came,” I said stupidly.

Her brows rose. “I keep my promises.”

I wanted to laugh and cry all at once, to sweep her into my arms and cover her face with kisses. I couldn't, though. Today was different. It would have felt like a grave impropriety. And so we stood there, unsure how to proceed, while her guards and Urist and his men eyed one another.

“This is Captain Claude de Monluc,” Sidonie said, breaking the silence. “My lord Claude, Prince Imriel de la Courcel.”

A tall man with blond hair and keen, light blue eyes stepped forward and bowed, correct and exact. “Well met, your highness.”

I put out my hand. “And you, my lord.” Claude de Monluc hesitated only a heartbeat before clasping my hand. His grip was firm, and his expression gave away very little. “This is Urist mab Wrada,” I said, introducing him. “Commander of the garrison of Clunderry. Urist, her highness Sidonie de la Courcel, Dauphine of Terre dAnge.”

Urist nodded, arms folded. His expression gave away absolutely nothing.

To my surprise, Sidonie crossed over to him and laid a hand on his arm. “I understand from Imriel's kinsman that you brought him here to honor his wife's last wish, my lord Urist,” she said quietly. “Thank you. That must have been difficult.”

His face softened. “Ah, well.”

Sidonie turned to me. “We should talk.”

I was glad one of us, at least, had a sense of propriety. “In my quarters,” I said. “Urist, I leave you in charge.”

Any other time, I would have given Sidonie my arm as a matter of simple courtesy. Even when we'd disliked one other, we'd observed Court protocol. Today I didn't. We walked side by side, not touching, conscious of the distance between us, conscious of the watching eyes of the men behind us; half of them still grieving Clunderry's loss, half of them weighing their loyalties and contemplating the Queen's displeasure.

It was a blessed relief to close the door to the master chamber behind us. Sidonie let out a long, shuddering sigh. I reached for her and she came into my arms. I enfolded her and she wrapped her arms around me, pressed her face to my chest. I rested my cheek against her hair, feeling the rain's dampness.

“What shall we talk about?” I murmured.

Her lips curved in a smile. “Anything. Nothing.”

We stood without moving for a long time. It felt so good to hold her, I could have stood forever. It was Sidonie who moved first, lifting her head, exploring my chest lightly with her fingertips and feeling the bandages Cailan had rewound last night beneath my shirt. “How bad is it?”

“Bad,” I said. “Getting better.”

“May I see?” she asked. I nodded. Sidonie undid the wooden buttons on my shirt, one by one. She had a deft touch, quick and neat. She went slowly, though, unwinding the bandages. Tears rose to her eyes, rose and overflowed. When the last coil of the clean linen strip fell away, she gasped. “Name of Elua!”

“You should have seen it before,” I said wryly.

“Don't jest.” Sidonie shook her head. “The first news we heard, they weren't sure if you'd live or die, Imriel. I never thought one could die of sorrow, I truly didn't. But something broke inside me that day.”

“I'm sorry,” I whispered.

“Will you tell me about it?” she asked softly. “Phèdre and Joscelin did try to explain before they left, but I'm not sure I understand what happened. Any of it.”

“Oh, gods.” I winced. “That letter …I'm so sorry.”

“I know.” Sidonie searched my face. “I just want to understand.”

I nodded. “I'll try.”

We sat on the bed. I held her hands and began to talk. I told her all of it, without censoring any of the details. Things I hadn't told anyone. How hard it was to leave her, how I'd tried to make my heart into a stone and bury it. The ways the Maghuin Dhonn had haunted me. The flute song, the laughter, the fouled spring. The night I'd let myself think of her for the first time, spilling my seed on taisgaidh soil. Morwen, the charm. The bindings I'd consented to. Dorelei, carrying our child. Berlik's vow. How I hadn't grasped the enormity of what I'd lost until the night of my Alban nuptials, the night I'd taken off the croonie-stone to read her letter, laughing and weeping like a madman.

Once I began, I couldn't stop.

The words came and came. Clunderry, the cattle-raid, and Morwen again. The ever-changing future. The sight of my father's spectre during the Feast of the Dead. Spring and hope, and Dorelei great with child, and then that night, that terrible night. The visions I'd seen in the stone circle. Alba at war. The burning groves, the toppling stones. My son, the monster.

The horns of Clunderry.

The screaming.

Berlik.

My voice faltered, there. I couldn't speak of it, not yet. Of Dorelei lying on the table, her head turned too far, her eyes empty and open. Blood soaking into the cloak that covered her swollen belly. Not yet, mayhap not ever. It didn't matter. I'd said enough. I was wrung out, damp with sweat. Sidonie pulled away and buried her face in her hands, shuddering.

“It was us,” she whispered. “That's how they bound you.”

I didn't lie to her. “Yes.”

“I wonder that you can bear the sight of me,” she murmured, lifting her head.

“Sidonie.” I gazed at her. All of the wondrous contradictions of her nature were written on her face. The dark Cruithne eyes, at odds with her fair coloring. The strong line of her brows, the same shape as my own, a legacy of House Courcel, countering the delicacy of her features. The sweet shape of her pink lips. I laughed with sorrow. “Ah, Elua! I didn't think I could bear it either, not yet. I wouldn't have come if Urist hadn't insisted. If Dorelei hadn't made him promise. And the truth is, she was right. Nothing's changed it, not time or distance or horror. I love you. I could look at you forever. And I do believe that for whatever unfathomable reasons, Blessed Elua wills it.” I hesitated. “Unless you feel differently?”

“No.” She shook her head, then reached up and drew my head down to kiss me. “No. Never.” She kissed my lips, my throat, laying a trail of kisses toward my bare, ravaged torso. A shock of desire flared through me. “I love you.”

Ah, gods! It felt like a benediction.

“Sidonie.” My voice shook. “I swore an oath, I pledged myself to Dorelei and no other for a year and a day.”

” 'Tis a vow meant to be kept to the living.” Her black eyes glittered with love and anguish. “How long will you stay here? A day? Two days? And how long will you be gone? Months? A year? I know you have to go. And Elua help me, I'll wait for you. For as long as it takes, I'll wait. I will.” She dashed impatiently at her tears. “But do you believe the gods are so cruel as to deny us this one morsel of joy?”