Kushiel's Justice (Page 63)

— Advertising —

“I'm well aware of that.” Sidonie's voice hardened. “Mayhap you forget, my lord, whence we come. My mother was raised under the shadow of being named a murderess' get, thanks to the intemperate actions of your own sister, who caused the death of my grandfather's first betrothed.” Her gaze travelled around the room. “My lord Ghislain, you abjured the name Somerville after your father raised an army to seize the City. Your wife's mother and brother were executed for treason. No one rises to power with an unblemished heritage.”

“Yes, but—” L'Envers began.

“But what?” The word cracked like a whip. “You have offered Imriel nothing but mistrust from the day he arrived. And yet despite it, he has given nothing but loyalty to House Courcel. If there has been any hint of treason about him, it is because you put it there yourself, my lord.”

It was true, but no one had ever dared say it in public. Not even Ysandre. I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me. In the deafening silence that followed, Barquiel L'Envers turned purple with fury and humiliation. His fists knotted. Sidonie lifted her chin and stared defiantly at him, daring him to deny it. Only the quick pulse beating in the hollow of her throat gave any indication she was less than utterly fearless.

Elua, but I loved her.

L'Envers took a step toward her. Her guards shifted. Although he looked as though he tasted bile, Maslin de Lombelon stepped forward to confront his former patron, shaking his head. Ghislain nó Trevalion ordered everyone to stand down. My palms itched, and I wished I was armed.

What might have happened in that moment, I cannot say. Amidst the silence, there was a sound in the entry. It was a Cruithne warrior who broke the uneasy tableau, bursting into the hall. Deordivus; one of the young men who'd ridden with Kinadius. He was alone and travel-worn, spattered with mud, but there was a grin splitting his woad-stained face. Heedless of the gathered throng, he pushed his way through to me while D'Angeline peers stared, bemused, forgetting about L'Envers and his quarrel.

My heart beat hard in my breast, a steady drumbeat calling for justice.

“We found it.” Deordivus' hands rose to grip my upper arms. His grimy fingers left marks on my sleeves. His grin widened. “We found the bear-witch's trail!”

Chapter Forty-Two

It took a while for matters to settle after Deordivus' arrival, but they did. A great deal of the credit was due to Ghislain nó Trevalion, though I paid scant heed to what transpired. All I know is that he managed to get L'Envers and his entourage to quit the manor house, withdrawing his own men to ensure their departure.Before he left, he paused to bid me farewell. “Good hunting, Prince Imriel.”

I nodded, distracted. Mavros had procured maps from a study, and we were poring over them; Deordivus indicating the bridge where Berlik had been seen crossing from Azzalle into the Flatlands. A man, travelling in human form. I wondered if his shapechanging magic was leaving him as he travelled farther from Alban soil. “My thanks, Lord Ghislain.”

Ghislain rested a heavy hand on my shoulder. “What her highness said is true, you know. I don't presume to gauge your intentions here, but I'm not hypocrite enough to pass judgment on you based on your mother's actions. I wanted you to know it.”

I glanced up at him. Like his son Bertran, he had an open, honest face; but there was a shadow of knowledge behind his eyes that his son lacked. He knows, I thought. Bernadette must have confessed it to him. He knows that his wife sought to have me killed. “Thank you, my lord. I appreciate it.”

His grip tightened briefly. “May Kushiel's justice prevail in mercy and wisdom.”

With that, he left us.

Our plan was simple. Kinadius and his men were following Berlik's trail. Kinadius had sent Deordivus to bring the news to us and another fellow to Alba to alert Drustan and Talorcan. We would leave on the morrow. They would send word back to the Flatlander bridge-keeper that we might follow in their tracks.

It was only the leaving that was hard.

Sidonie waited while I conferred with Deordivus and Urist, speaking in low tones to Lord Amaury, Claude de Monluc, to Mavros, to a Hugues rendered suddenly shy and tongue-tied. Maslin de Lombelon was gone. I hadn't noticed him leave.

After a time, she approached the table where our maps were spread. I pushed my chair back and rose to greet her, acutely aware of my own neglect. Vengeance and love didn't make for good bedfellows. Or mayhap I was still insufferably self-absorbed.

“I'm sorry,” I said awkwardly.

Sidonie shook her head. “Don't be. Shall I go?”

“Can you stay?” I asked.

“Until the morning?” She tilted her head, smiling slightly in the direction of Lord Amaury, who was sitting with his head bowed, tugging at his curly brown hair. “Oh yes, I think my mother's emissary is sufficiently abashed that there will be no trouble.”

“I would like it,” I said quietly. “I would like it very much. What you said today …” I paused, unable to find adequate words that sufficed to express the vast love and awe within me. “You were magnificent. Truly.”

“Ah, well.” There was no pride in her expression, only a deep, complicated sorrow. “I've had a long time to think about being brave, Imriel.”

Urist grunted. “Better late than never, eh?”

Sidonie nodded. “Yes, my lord. I'm trying.”

So it was decided.

I spoke to Hugues, who had come to deliver a satchel full of coin, courtesy of my factor. He was still wide-eyed, out of his element. I thanked him for his kindness and promised to send word at every opportunity. And I thanked him, too, for the gift he'd made me the last time I'd departed from Terre d'Ange.

“The flute?” Hugues blushed. “Oh, it was a silly gift.”

“No, it wasn't.” I shook my head, thinking about Dorelei's laughter. “It was perfect.”

“Well, I'm glad you liked it.” He embraced me carefully, mindful of my wounds. “Please come home safe, Imri. I don't want to be the last member of her ladyship's household to see you alive.”

I swallowed hard. “I'll do my best.”

Mavros, too, took his leave. He'd come out of loyalty when he'd gotten word of L'Envers' entourage heading for the manor house. “I don't know what I expected to do,” he said wryly. “Serve as a witness, mayhap, if he killed you out of hand. Declare blood-feud on behalf of House Shahrizai.”

“You're a good friend,” I said. “Truly.”

Mavros shrugged. “You do keep life interesting, cousin.” He tugged aside the collar of my shirt, peering judiciously at the love-bite it covered. “Very impressive,” he said to Sidonie, who merely raised her brows. “You're a bundle of surprises, your highness.”

I swatted his hands away. “Yes, and you're incorrigible.”

“So I'm told.” He took my face in his hands, and I was moved to see that beneath the careless amusement, there were tears in his eyes. “Take care of yourself.”

“I will,” I said softly. “I'm coming home with that bastard's head in a bag, Mavros.”

“Good.” He nodded. “Good.”

Lord Amaury was staying out of a morbid sense of obligation, although I daresay he was none too pleased about it. In the morning, he would escort Sidonie back to the Palace, along with his men and her personal guard. I might have felt sorry for him another time. As it was, I couldn't put a name to what I felt. I'd never had such powerful emotions warring in me.

It was Sidonie who took matters in hand. With quiet, assured competence she spoke to the steward Isembart. I saw him bow in acquiescence, and although his features were schooled to near-perfect inexpressiveness, I could sense the relief behind them.

“Very good, your highness,” he murmured.

I was watching her out of the corner of my eye while Urist and I went over our preparations for departure on the morrow; the supplies that had been delivered, those we would need to procure on the road. Sidonie caught my eye and smiled, returning to the table where we were working, still spread with maps.

“This is where he was seen?” she asked, touching the map.

“Yes,” I said. “Crossing a bridge.”

She cocked her head. “If he bears north, he's bound for Skaldia.”

I shivered involuntarily. “I know.”

Sidonie spread her hand on the map. “So.” For a moment, her shoulders slumped; then she straightened and regarded me. “When you've finished here, I'll be in the master chamber. Dinner will be served to Commander Urist, Lord Amaury, Captain de Monluc, and their men in the great hall.”

I watched her walk away, back straight, coiled hair shining.

Urist watched me. “We're finished.”

“We haven't—” I began.

“Strong-willed, that one.” He jerked his chin in the direction Sidonie had gone. “Drustan's eldest. Go. There's nothing to be done here I can't handle.”

I went.

She's like a house without a door. That was what Dorelei had said of Sidonie; the only thing she'd ever said about her. I understood what she meant. It wasn't true, though. I leaned in the doorway of the master bedchamber, watching Sidonie peruse the contents of the flagellary cupboard. She could be closed and careful, but on her own terms, she was utterly uninhibited. The contrast never failed to give me a thrill of shock and delight.

“See anything you like?” I asked.

She shot me an unreadable glance over her shoulder. “Oh, yes. But not today.” She closed the cupboard doors. “I didn't expect you so soon.”

“Urist dismissed me,” I said.

“Urist.” The master chamber had a generous hearth, with a pair of sumptuous chairs and a low table before it. A fire had been laid in the hearth, and there was a wine jug and a platter of cheese and dates on the table. Sidonie poured wine into the goblets provided. They were wrought of the same fine white porcelain, so thin the red wine showed through in a faint blush. “He must have cared very much for Dorelei to honor her wishes in this.”

“Yes.” I took one of the goblets and sank into a chair. “More than I knew. But she was easy to love.”

Sidonie gazed at me. “Why did she do it?”

“She loved me,” I said softly. “Very much. More than I deserved. She wanted me to be happy. And I think she feared that if aught happened to her, I'd let myself be consumed with vengeance.”

“Will you?” she asked in a low voice.

I turned the goblet in my hands, studying it. “No.” I lifted my head and met her gaze. “No. Because along with my guilt and grief, I will carry with me a promise of hope. Of redemption. The memory of Elua's grace and mercy. The memory of you defying your mother and half of Terre d'Ange for my sake.” I smiled a little. “Not to mention Barquiel L'Envers.”

“That was long overdue,” Sidonie murmured.

“Yes.” I set down my goblet. “But I will have vengeance. Dorelei's blood demands it. And …” I caught my breath and looked away. “And our son's.”

“Aniel,” she whispered.

I nodded. I'd told her the name we'd chosen, Dorelei and I. “I would have loved him,” I murmured, hearing my voice break. “No matter what. I don't believe the vision Morwen showed me. I can't. I won't. I wouldn't have let that happen, not while there was breath in my body. I would have found a way, some way…”

“You would,” Sidonie said steadily.

I met her gaze again. “It doesn't frighten you?”

“No.” Sidonie picked up her goblet and drained it. She'd walked out of this bedchamber without blushing to greet Lord Amaury, she'd set an entire roomful of peers on their ear without any sign of fear, and she hadn't twitched an eyelash when Mavros complimented her on my love-bite, but her color rose now, unexpected and girlish. “Imriel, will you please come home safely and marry me?”

“Yes,” I said promptly.

She sighed. “Oh, good.”

We both laughed then, feeling self-conscious at the enormity of the decision. What else was there to do? I felt Elua's mercy gather us as though in a vast net, letting the grief abate. Time. It was a small space of time, but it was ours. I reached out and caught one of her hands, tugging gently until Sidonie came to sit on my lap. She smelled like rain and wood-smoke and herself, honey-sweet with a tinge of salt. I loosed her hair from its neat coils, sinking my fingers into it and kissing her until a discreet knock sounded at the door. Sidonie raised her head, dark eyes vague with pleasure. “I sent for a bath before dinner.”

“Send it away,” I suggested, nuzzling her throat.

She wriggled. “Your bandages need to be soaked loose.”

“Do they?” I asked, uninterested.

“Yes.” Sidonie kissed me quick and hard, biting my lower lip, then slipped off my lap. I watched her open the door and incline her head graciously, admitting a series of impeccably polite servants bearing buckets of warm water to fill the bath, pouring scented oil into the steaming water.

It seemed to take forever.

She was right, of course. When the servants had finished at last, I let Sidonie undress me with grave deliberation. My once-clean bandages were stuck to my skin, caked with dried blood. I stepped into the bath and sank down, sighing as the warm water loosened the blood-stiffened linen. I rested my arms along the edges of the tub. “Are you going to leave me alone here?”

Sidonie eyed me. “No.”

Water sloshed over the edges of the bathtub as she stripped and joined me. Servants of House Shahrizai came and went, setting forth an elaborate, intimate dinner on the low table before the hearth. Firelight danced over Sidonie's fair skin as she unwound my bandages. Beneath the water, our legs entwined. She frowned with concentration. A few thin threads of blood rose from my cracked scabs, tinting the water.