Kushiel's Justice (Page 69)

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I'd been watching while various petitioners were admitted beyond the antechamber, and others emerged. No one in the antechamber had one of those odd muslin caps, but a family of pilgrims were clutching them as they returned from their audience with Adelmar, chattering excitedly with one another. “Because this Adelmar can grant us passage across Skaldia to wherever it is they're bound,” I said, nodding at them. “I think that's what the hats signify. I've a feeling we'd be a great deal less likely to get killed sporting those.”

“We're not exactly pilgrims,” Kinadius observed.

“No, but the Skaldi understand honor.” I thought about Joscelin challenging Waldemar Selig to the holmgang outside the gates of Troyes-le-Mont. “It's worth a try.”

Hours passed.

To my delight, I overheard another pilgrim family conversing in Habiru. I understood it better than I spoke it, but I'd learned a fair bit in Saba, and I hadn't lost it. I passed the time conversing with them and learned they were from a Flatlander town not far from Zoellen, and were bound for the northern kingdom.

“Vralia,” the young husband said reverently. “So it is called after the new king.”

“Vralia?” I tasted the word.

He nodded. “You know of it?”

I shook my head. “Tell me.”

For the better part of an hour, he regaled me with tales of distant Vralia. It seemed for long years, the Yeshuite presence had merely been tolerated without making much impact on the fierce land, which was cold and harsh, and filled with quarrelsome tribes. The Yeshuites had built their settlements and defended them from raiding nomads. One of their leaders, a man named Micah ben Ximon, was a warrior of great renown. Stories of his prowess had been filtering through the Yeshuite community for years.

“It is said that he can best any swordsman with only a pair of daggers,” the young Habiru man, whose name was Yoel, told me. “As was foretold. 'And he shall carve out the way before you, and his blades shall shine like a star in his hands.'“

My skin prickled. “Like so?” I crossed my forearms in the Cassiline manner.

Yoel's eyes widened. “You do know this tale!”

I laughed softly. “I know its beginning. Go on, my friend.”

He told me how what power there was lay in the hands of the Vralings, ruling from the city of Vralgrad. How two brothers, Tadeuz and Fedor, had quarrelled over the throne some eight years ago. Fedor, the younger, had raised an army in rebellion, courting the wild Tatars and filling his ranks with them. He had been poised to overthrow Tadeuz, who sent in desperation for the renowned Yeshuite warrior, Micah ben Ximon.

“Ben Ximon told him, if you place your faith in Yeshua, I will lead your army to victory in his name,” Yoel said. “And he did. It is said a great miracle took place that day.” His face shone. “Now Tadeuz Vral rules in Yeshua's name. Truly, Yeshua's kingdom lives in the north!”

I kept my mouth shut on the thought that while he might rule in Yeshua's name, this Tadeuz Vral had seen fit to call his kingdom after his own name. “What happened to the rebel brother?”

“Imprisoned.” Yoel smiled. “A Yeshuite king is a compassionate king.”

I would have spoken longer with him, but the burly official summoned them. He then peered at his assistant's list, running a thick finger down the names written there. “Come tomorrow,” he said to us in Skaldic. “Too late today.”

I groaned. “It's very …” I couldn't think of the word for “important” or “urgent.” I did my best to argue with him, but his expression hardened.

“Tomorrow!” he thundered.

The guards posted at the antechamber door began to take an uncomfortable interest in us. “Fine,” I said reluctantly. “Tomorrow.”

I broke the news to Urist and the others. Deordivus was angry, but Urist took it in stride. “We had a piece of luck at the tannery,” he said philosophically. “And another one choosing to follow the pilgrims. Not every day's a lucky one.”

“Let's hope tomorrow is,” I said.

Chapter Forty-Seven

On the morrow we learned that Adelmar of the Frisii was a shrewd man.We had to wait two hours that morning before we were summoned to an audience with him. For a ruler with the power to grant us safe passage through Skaldia, he wasn't a terribly prepossessing figure; middle years, average height, with thinning blond hair and sallow features. But he watched me coolly as I bowed and stammered through a greeting in my tortured Skaldic, and what he thought, I couldn't guess.

“Perhaps you would prefer to speak Caerdicci?” he asked in that tongue when I finished.

“Elua, yes!” I laughed, startled. “Thank you, my lord.”

Adelmar smiled thinly. “Some of us are educated.” He arched one brow. “I'll own, I'm curious. What brings one lone D'Angeline to our midst in the company of a group of Albans? You're either brave, foolhardy, or both.”

I explained.

It took a while.

He listened without interrupting, studying my face. At one point, he glanced away to shuffle through some papers on a side table. When I faltered, he merely beckoned for me to continue. At last I finished. He propped his chin on one hand and regarded me. “I would very much like to believe you're a raving madman,” he mused. “Unfortunately, I do remember this man of whom you speak, very clearly indeed. And my men have asked questions. It seems the women of Maarten's Crossing are filled with gossip about the young D'Angeline staying at Halla's inn. Terrible scars, it seems.”

“I've not lied to you, my lord,” I said.

“You should have,” Adelmar said bluntly. “You should have told me you were pilgrims.”

“Would you have believed me?” I asked.

His brown eyes glinted with amusement. “Not likely.”

“Safe passage,” I said. “That's all we ask. We're travelling swiftly. If he sticks to the pilgrims' route, we'll catch him within three weeks' time. A month, at most.”

“It's not that simple.” Adelmar rose to pace the room, hands clasped behind his back. “You're too young to remember the war, I suppose?”

“I was born after it ended,” I said.

“I'll wager he remembers it.” He paused in front of Urist, who favored him with an unblinking stare. “We might have faced one another on the battlefield, he and I, along the banks of the Rhenus. Neither of us much older than you are today, young prince. And do you know what I discovered?” he asked. I shook my head. “I don't have a taste for war,” Adelmar said grimly. “Waldemar Selig was a great man, but he had a great man's impatience. I am a lesser man, but a patient one. After Skaldia's defeat, while my countrymen retreated to lick their wounds, I saw what the future might hold when Alba opened for trade. And I set about building a lesser empire than Selig envisioned, built on trade, and not glory.”

I nodded. “So did many along the Caerdicci border.”

“Yes,” he said. “I studied among them. Unfortunately, my holdings here are isolated. We don't lie on the Caerdicci trade routes. So I looked east to Alba, and south to the Flatlands. And I looked north. Recently, the north looked back.”

“Vralia?” I asked.

“An interesting man, Tadeuz Vral.” Adelmar gave me another thin smile. “We held a meeting, he and I, along the southern border of his fledgling empire. He made me promises; promises of fur and amber and timber, promises of a vast, growing market for trade. And I made him a promise. I promised to grant safe passage through Skaldia for the Yeshuite pilgrims with which he thinks to build a mighty kingdom in the north.”

“Berlik's no pilgrim,” I said.

“Can you gauge a man's heart so surely?” he asked. “He came to me as a pilgrim. Those with whom he was travelling spoke eloquently on his behalf. I saw no violence in him, only sorrow.”

“He's not a Yeshuite!” I raised my voice. “Name of Elua, man! He's a magician of the Maghuin Dhonn. The people he was with—whoever they are, he's only just met them.”

“A man's heart may change in a day,” Adelmar said dryly. “Tadeuz Vral claims that his did. And he is a valuable ally.”

“Are you refusing our request?” I asked.

He was silent for a moment. “I have no great wish to offend the Cruarch of Alba and the Queen of Terre d'Ange. If you were to return with a large delegation and a generous offering of thanks, enough to offset the ill will it would generate among my people and allow me to assuage Vralia's anger, I might be swayed. But, no. For the sake of one young D'Angeline prince's honor and a ragtag band of Albans, I can't afford to grant it.”

“It would take weeks!” I protested. “We'd lose his trail altogether.”

Adelmar shook his head. “I'm sorry.”

I sighed. “Then we'll follow him without your blessing.”

“And you'll die doing it,” he said bluntly. “You don't have enough men, boy. I can keep the peace in Maarten's Crossing, and the Skaldi have no quarrel with the Yeshuites. You and your men, you're another matter. You'll be challenged before you've gone ten leagues. If you're lucky, you'll end up a slave in someone's steading. Take my advice. There may be things worth dying for, but revenge isn't one of them. Go home, find a pretty girl to warm your bed. Marry her, start anew.” His mouth twisted. “A good-looking D'Angeline lad like you, I imagine you could take your pick.”

“Not quite,” I said. “My lord, will you forgive me if I take a moment to convey your words to my men?”

He waved a hand, then reached for a stack of papers. “Go ahead.”

I told them, speaking in Cruithne, quick and low. Urist grunted at the bad news. “You sent a man to fetch Talorcan when you first found the trail, right?” he asked Kinadius, who nodded. “I imagine he'll bring a sizable delegation, all right.”

“But no suitable bribe,” I said. A second thought struck me. “Elua! Did we leave word for him after we decided to follow the pilgrims' route?”

In the excitement of the hunt, no, we hadn't.

“It's not too late,” Urist said pragmatically. “We can send word back to Zoellen town. Send word to Queen Ysandre, too, asking for bribe money.” His hard gaze rested on me. “Do you reckon she'll agree, or is she too angry at you for bedding her daughter?”

I raked a hand through my hair, tense and frustrated. “No. I don't know. It's what Drustan would want. I daresay she'll put aside her anger to honor his wishes. Urist, are you suggesting we wait here and let the trail grow cold?”

Adelmar set down his papers, cocking his head and watching us.

“Not all of us.” Urist shrugged. “Send a couple of the young ones to fetch Talorcan and plead with the Queen. Imriel, Kinadius …you should wait here to meet them. The old guard and I will follow the bear-witch's trail into Skaldia, see how far we get.” He glanced sidelong at Brun, his fellow veteran. “Like old times, eh?” Brun grinned and nodded slowly.

I thought about Dorelei's head turned on the table, her lifeless eyes. “I can't let you do it. Not without me.”

“Why not?” Urist asked. “It's all we've ever known, lad. We're warriors, we're not afraid of a warrior's death. You're young. You've known grief, aye, but you've got a beautiful girl at home waiting for you.” His gaze softened. “Don't throw your life away, lad.”

I thought about Sidonie, too. The way she had touched Urist's arm and thanked him, the way she hadn't asked me not to go. The guilt that lay between us. I loved her, I loved her so much it hurt. But I knew, for a surety, that if I let Urist and his men ride into Skaldia to face death while I waited in safety for reinforcements at Maarten's Crossing, the guilt would eat me alive. “I can't do it, Urist. It's too much. Either we all stay, or I ride with you.”

“I'm not staying,” he said curtly.

“Then I'm going with you,” I said.

We were deadlocked and stubborn, and we would have stayed that way a long time if Adelmar hadn't interrupted. “You seem to be quarrelling with your Alban commander,” he observed in Caerdicci.

“Yes, my lord.” I didn't bother explaining. “We will send for a delegation and a proper petition. But some of us will follow the magician's trail.”

He pursed his lips, picked up a stack of papers and squared them, tapping them on the side table. I was silent, watching him wrestle with an inner decision. “What if I told you there was another way to find him?” he said at length. “A better way.”

The gist of it was this: Adelmar of the Frisii knew where Berlik's pilgrims were bound in Vralia. He was a careful man and he kept careful records. He recorded the name, origin, and destination of every pilgrim to whom he granted safe passage. The families Berlik was travelling with hailed from a small village along the Rhenus, and they were headed for Kargad, another small village south of Vralgrad along the Ulsk River.

The pilgrims' route lay overland, northeast. But there was another way, a swifter way. Merchant ships were plying a route across the Eastern Sea, forging trade routes all the way from Vralgrad to the Skaldic port of Norstock.

“There's a Flatlander caravan bound for Norstock on the morrow,” Adelmar said. “Carrying wool for a Vralian trade-ship. They've got a writ of safe passage and an escort of men loyal to me. I reckon I could allow one or two of you to ride with them as far as Norstock without causing too much trouble. One or two.”