Kushiel's Justice (Page 73)

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The way she had taught me to be a better person.

I'd spent a good portion of my life looking for those answers. I'd looked to heroes like Joscelin and Phèdre. I'd looked to wise men like Master Piero, the philosopher. In the end, I'd learned more about simple, common decency from my wife than anyone else. Dorelei had loved me. She had known me. She had shaken me from my youthful self-absorption. She had extorted promises to ensure my happiness. I owed her justice.

“No,” I repeated to Urist. “I won't give up.”

He grunted. “Good. Didn't think so.”

By noon on the second day, we caught sight of the mainland, all of us cheering wildly. We were back on course. What a small distance it was, truly; little more than a day's sail, less if we'd had a stronger wind at our back. And yet it had been enough to render us utterly isolated.

On the following day, we put ashore at a small port-town called Yelek, situated on a jutting peninsula. I can only imagine the picture we made. Our ship was sound, but we looked like …well, as Urist had said, we looked like savages. All of us were burned brown by sun and wind, filthy and salt-crusted, our clothing frayed and tattered. There simply hadn't been enough fresh water on the island to bathe.

Yelek didn't have a bath-house, but it had a marketplace and a public well. While Captain Iosef explained our plight to the harbor-master, we stripped to the waist and dowsed one another with buckets of fresh water, shivering in the bright, chilly air. Women from the town eyed us and giggled, talking behind their hands.

“They're all looking at you,” Ravi noted.

I dumped a bucket of water over my head, shaking it off like a dog. “And you.”

“Oh, I think not.” He smiled ruefully. “Between your face and…” Ravi cocked his head, glancing at my scarred torso. “What did happen to you, anyway?”

“Now you ask?” I said wryly.

He shrugged. “It seemed impolite.”

I handed the bucket to the man beside me. “I was attacked by a bear.”

“Some bear,” Ravi murmured.

I gazed toward the north. “Yes,” I said. “He was.”

Those of us with money to spend bought warmer clothing in Yelek; ill-fitting woolen stuff sold by the vendors there. Urist and I were in good shape, the bulk of our monies having been tied in a pouch around his waist. The vendors looked askance at our D'Angeline coinage, but they weighed and accepted it, giving us change in Vralian currency. Copper coins, bearing the flared cross on one side and a sword on the other.

I bought a coarse woolen coat for Ravi, who had no money to spend, and for several of the other men in the same circumstances, embarrassed by their thanks. The weather was turning cold and the wind at sea cut to the bone; obtaining warmer gear was the main reason we'd put in at Yelek. I was glad I could help. I'd lost time in my quest for vengeance. Iosef and his men had lost a portion of their livelihood, the profits from this journey on which they had depended.

Which was more important?

I couldn't say.

Marginally cleaner and markedly warmer, we set sail from Yelek. Back to sea, back to following the coastline.

All the way to Vralgrad.

Unlike Yelek, Vralgrad didn't lie on the coast of the Eastern Sea, but leagues inland, straddling the Volkov River. It was a wide, slow, strong river. We beat a course upstream with sail and oars, passing many other small ships like ours. Ravi told me that there were a series of large rivers crossing Vralia, linked by smaller tributaries, that went as far as Ephesium. They had long been used as trade routes, although toward the east they were vulnerable to raiding Tatars, which was why Tadeuz Vral was looking to increase trade in the west.

That was a thought that made me uneasy. The Mahrkagir had courted the aid of several Tatar tribes. He'd promised me as a prize to the Kereyit Tatar warlord Jagun, who had a fondness for young boys. Jagun hadn't gotten his prize in the end, but he'd had a chance to toy with me. I bore the mark of his brand on my left buttock, a shiny, puckered scar. I still remembered the charred odor of my own flesh searing.

I put such thoughts aside as we sailed into Vralgrad. Although small and compact, it was an impressive city, far more so than I would have reckoned. The notion of a vast kingdom might be a new one, but the Vralings had ruled this particular region for a long time. According to Ravi, the city itself was over two hundred years old. It was encircled by a sturdy stone wall, and beneath the river there were heavy chains that could be lifted and stretched taut to keep enemy ships from entering.

The architecture was a curious mixture. The oldest buildings were square and squat, stone fortresses suitable for defense, but there was a good deal of newer timber-built construction. Here and there, one could see another style altogether, with high arches and pointed domes I guessed were due to an Ephesian influence.

We found a berth at the bustling quay. The wharf was filled with Vralians, mostly men, standing around in animated conversation; so animated, in fact, that our arrival elicited little interest. I glanced at Captain Iosef, frowning beneath his overgrown mustache.

“Not a lot of work being done here,” Urist observed. “What's happening?”

I shook my head. “I don't know.”

It wasn't long before we found out. The harbor-master ordered us not to leave the ship, but he was willing to share the news. In the small hours of the night, there had been an attack on the tower where Fedor Vral, the younger brother of Tadeuz, had been imprisoned for the better part of a year. Half a dozen guards had been slain. The attackers had succeeded in freeing Fedor and fled, taking the rebel prince with them.

No one, it seemed, was permitted to disembark. There was a handful of guards working their way down the wharf, interrogating new arrivals. They were an imposing lot, clad in heavy coats of white brocade worked with the flared cross in crimson, with wide sword-belts and tall black boots. We waited patiently until a pair of them boarded the ship. They took one look at Urist and me and began questioning Captain Iosef.

From Iosef's replies, I gathered that Ravi had passed on the story I'd told him; that we were scouts sent by the Cruarch of Alba and the Queen of Terre d'Ange. I heard Micah ben Ximon's name mentioned several times.

The guards responded by berating Captain Iosef for his carelessness in allowing such potentially valuable persons to be shipwrecked, a charge he denied with angry vehemence. I made an effort to intervene.

“Not his fault,” I said in crude Rus. I made a motion with one hand to indicate waves pitching. “Good man. Bad storm, very bad.”

The guards conferred, and one of them departed at a quick trot. The tallest offered me a crisp bow. “On behalf of Grand Prince Tadeuz Vral, I apologize,” he said slowly and carefully. “We will escort you to the palace to meet with ben Ximon.” He said something else I didn't quite understand.

“He's sent for a carriage for Urist,” Ravi said helpfully.

I returned the guard's bow. “Spasiba,” I said. “Thank you.”

It all happened very quickly. The carriage came in short order, the driver clad in crimson livery. Urist maneuvered cautiously down the loading plank on his crutches. The guards surrounded us respectfully, the tall one holding the carriage door open. We said awkward goodbyes to our shipmates, shaking hands all around.

“Come find me if you have a chance,” Ravi said hopefully. “I'll be seeking cheap lodgings near the wharf until I ship out again. You can buy me a drink and tell me what Micah ben Ximon is like.”

“I'll try,” I said, knowing it wasn't likely.

It felt strange to leave them. We'd been working together and sharing close quarters for so many days, sleeping cheek by jowl beneath our shelter. I helped Urist into the carriage, then went round to get in the other side. The tall guard bowed again, opening that door for me. I thanked him as he closed it and gave an order to the driver.

And like that, we were off, bound for the palace.

Urist shifted his splinted leg with both hands, grunting. “So,” he said. “Exactly what are we going to tell this Micah ben Ximon?”

I gazed out the window, watching as we passed a Yeshuite temple; a vast affair of white marble. It sported multiple towers, each topped with a gilded dome, and atop each dome, a spire with a golden cross. It looked new and ambitious, and unlike any other Yeshuite temple I'd ever seen.

“I don't know,” I said. “I truly don't.”

Chapter Fifty-One

As it transpired, we didn't have to tell Micah ben Ximon a great deal.He already knew.

Urist and I were given fine quarters in the palace, with a sitting room and a pair of bedchambers. The tall guard, whose name was Havlik, assured me that word of our arrival would be sent to ben Ximon, who was understandably busy with the news of Fedor's escape. Doubtless he would see us soon. In the meantime, we were to rest after our ordeal. All our needs would be tended to.

Of a surety, that was true. We were given heavy robes and escorted to a bathing-chamber, where copper tubs were filled with water heated over a massive hearth. It felt unspeakably good to sink into warm water and scour myself clean. I pitied Urist, who had to settle for standing with one foot in a tub, his braced leg propped awkwardly outside it lest the splint grow sodden and warp as it dried, rubbing himself with a sponge and dripping onto the marble inlay.

By the time we returned to our quarters, there was a feast laid; meat jellies, roast goose, soft dumplings, and a boiled grain I didn't recognize. No wine, but there was beer. We ate until our bellies were groaning, while a steady stream of servants brought clothing for us to peruse. Once I'd finished eating and donned clean attire, I felt nearly human.

A Yeshuite chirurgeon came to examine Urist's leg. He poked and prodded, then complimented the job we'd done of splinting it and cautioned against removing the splint for at least another two weeks. I translated his comments for Urist, who grunted in disgust.

It was evening before Micah ben Ximon called on us.

In my mind, he was still the young man in the stories I'd heard. It was absurd, of course. I'd been a babe in swaddling clothes when Joscelin had taught Micah ben Ximon to fight with Cassiline daggers. The man who entered our quarters was nearing forty. He had the olive complexion of the Habiru, a neatly trimmed black beard, intense dark eyes, and the air of a man accustomed to being obeyed. How not? He was Tadeuz Vral's warlord.

“So,” ben Ximon said without preamble, speaking Habiru. He must have learned from the chirurgeon that I spoke it. “I was told you know me. I think this is untrue.”

It seemed the message had gotten garbled somewhere in translation. “Not you, my lord,” I replied. “I know Joscelin Verreuil.” I raised my brows. “Best known in Vral, it seems, as the angel who appeared to you in a vision?”

Ben Ximon gave a startled laugh. “Joscelin?” His expression shifted into a complicated look I couldn't decipher. “How?”

“He's my foster-father,” I said simply. It wasn't true, strictly speaking, since Phèdre and Joscelin had never wed. But it was true enough.

Micah ben Ximon stared at me. When the guards had asked my name, I'd given it as Imriel nó Montrève. His lips moved, sounding it out. His eyes widened. “You're her son,” he said slowly, switching unexpectedly to Caerdicci.

“Phèdre's?” I nodded. “Yes.”

“No.” His mouth twisted wryly. “Prince Benedicte's D'Angeline bride. I saw her unveiled in the Temple of Asherat that day. We didn't leave La Serenissima until six months after it happened. I spent half my life there. I remember her face. I remember the name of her babe, who went missing that day. You have emerged from a past I would forget, bearing both. And you are telling me lies.”

Urist glanced from one of us to the other, trying to read our tones.

I sighed. “My lord, my full name is Imriel nó Montrève de la Courcel, and I have not lied to you. I was born to Melisande Shahrizai and Benedicte de la Courcel. I was adopted into the household of Phèdre nó Delaunay de Montrève and her consort, Joscelin Verreuil. It is a very, very long story. But it is a true one.”

“Tell me,” Micah ben Ximon said shortly.

I told him.

He was a good listener. He sat silent, staring at the ceiling, evincing no signs of impatience. When I had finished explaining how my mother had dispatched me to the Sanctuary of Elua, how I had been abducted by slave-traders and ended in Drujan, how Phèdre and Joscelin had rescued and adopted me, he let out a long, weary sigh. “So how is it, Prince Imriel de la Courcel, that you come to be in Vralia, seeking the life of a Yeshuite pilgrim?”

“I beg your pardon?” I asked, startled.

“Don't.” Ben Ximon held out one hand, forestalling me. “If you've not lied to me yet, I pray you, do not start. It is clear that your tattooed companion hails from Alba. There was a skirmish on the southern border of Vralia some ten days ago, along the pilgrims' route. It seems a small party of Albans were hunting a pilgrim, asking questions. My men dispatched several of them and sent the rest packing. You are fortunate that I was able to keep the matter quiet. Tadeuz Vral has ties to Skaldia and hopes of trading with Alba. I did not want him to hear of it. I've posted a heavy guard along the border lest others follow.”

I felt sick. “What has that to do with me?”

“I don't know.” His dark gaze was steady. “Tell me.”

I was silent for a long moment. “The man they were hunting killed my wife.”

“I see.” He looked away. “You are sure of this?”

“Yes,” I said.

Micah ben Ximon rose and walked across the room, hands clasped behind his back. I explained to Urist in a low voice what we had discussed. Urist winced at the news of Alban deaths.