Kushiel's Justice (Page 74)

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“It is a dangerous thing to bring a dream to life,” ben Ximon said without turning around. “Here in Vralia, I have watched my deepest, dearest hopes take shape. And I am not entirely sure I like the shape they have taken.”

“The cross and not the khai?” I asked.

“Yes.” He turned to face me. “Your wife's killer would not be the first criminal to seek refuge in Vralia under the mantle of Yeshua's name. There have been others; Skaldi fleeing persecution for some petty crime. Tadeuz Vral possesses all the zeal of a true convert. He extends his protection to anyone willing to acknowledge his rule and the divine sovereignty of Yeshua ben Yosef.”

“Including murderers?” I asked.

“Anyone,” he said.

“This is a matter of justice.” I held his gaze. “My lord, the man we seek is guilty. I daresay he would admit it himself if we found him. If nothing else, I ask only the right to escort him back to Alba where he might be tried for his crime.”

Micah ben Ximon shook his head. “Vral will not allow it.”

“Then I will seek justice on my own terms,” I said.

His lips curved. “I would expect such persistence from Joscelin Verreuil's foster-son.” He paused. “I'm sorry. You must have loved your wife very much.”

My jaw tensed. “Not as much as she deserved.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Vengeance and guilt. A powerful mix.”

“She was carrying our child,” I said. “Nearly full term. She was the niece of the Cruarch of Alba. If our son had lived, he would have been Alba's eventual heir.”

Another complicated emotion crossed ben Ximon's face. “I'm sorry,” he repeated. He returned to take his seat, steepling his fingers and thinking. “But even so, I cannot give you aid or sanction,” he said slowly. “And if you are caught, I cannot promise protection. I can only advise you to be careful. Tadeuz Vral is distracted by his brother's escape. They have been at odds for some years now. If my men do not catch Fedor before he reaches a stronghold—and I doubt they will, since it is rumored there were Tatar tribesmen with swift mounts awaiting him outside the city walls—there may be once again be war in Vralia.”

“Yeshua's victory proved short-lived,” I observed.

“It's the damned Tatars,” ben Ximon said.

It wasn't a sentiment with which I could disagree. “Why do they support Fedor Vral?”

“He admires them,” he said. “Prince Fedor is willing to promise the khans eternal rights to vast tracts of grazing land. To keep them free of pilgrim settlements. To bribe the tribes to leave the eastern trade routes alone.”

“And Tadeuz isn't?” I asked.

“No.” Micah ben Ximon regarded me. “His head is full of prophecy. He believes that God has chosen him to be the rock on which a new kingdom is founded, and that I am his strong right hand, his sword to carve out a path for Yeshua's return. The first step is conquering or converting Fedor's loyalists and the Tatars. He will not treat with them in any other way.”

“What do you believe?”

He shrugged. “Eight years ago, when Tadeuz Vral sent for me, my soul was on fire. I handed him a victory. I saw his heart change and the light of true faith shine from his face. I believed what he believed. Now…” He paused. “Already, the face of my people's faith is changing. In a generation's time, it may become unrecognizable. Perhaps it is Yeshua's will. I no longer know what I believe.”

We spoke for a while longer, and I translated his words for Urist. In the end, it was agreed that we should stick to the tale I'd concocted. We were adventurers, sent to scout out the prospects in Vralia; Urist as one of the Cruarch's trusted commanders, and me as a young D'Angeline nobleman whose family had known Micah ben Ximon long ago. Ben Ximon was willing to vouch for us that far, at least.

Due to his injury, Urist would remain at the palace while I explored the land and verified with my own eyes the existence of the fabled river trade routes of Vralia.

And hunted for Berlik.

If I was caught, ben Ximon warned me, he would disavow any knowledge of my true purpose. He might be able to intervene with Tadeuz Vral and save me; or not. He made no promises. Vral was unpredictable.

“Fair enough,” I said. “It's more than I expected.” I paused. “Why?”

“You remind me of him,” he said. “A little bit, anyway.”

“Tadeuz Vral?”

“Joscelin.” Micah ben Ximon smiled, a real smile. “Single-minded and stubborn as hell.” His smile turned wistful, and for the first time I could see the fierce, idealistic young man he must have been. “He taught me a great deal. I always hoped he would be proud of me if he knew what I'd done with it.”

“I know the feeling,” I murmured.

“And now I hope I may be proud of it.” He rose. “The men who were killed, the Albans …my men challenged them, and they fought. I'm sorry. Were they companions of yours?”

“Yes.” I relayed his words to Urist, who gave a curt nod of acknowledgment. I daresay the news made the same sick lump in his belly that it did in mine, but neither of us were in a position to do aught about it. “They took their chances.”

“As will you.” Ben Ximon tilted his head. “Is it worth the price?”

“We chose this freely,” I said. “My wife didn't.”

He sighed. “I wish you luck.”

The meeting left me restless and impatient. My course was set. I knew where I was bound; the village of Kargad, along the Ulsk River, a tributary of the Volkov. That was where Adelmar had told me the pilgrims with whom Berlik was travelling were headed. I would find them and lie to them. Tell them I was sent by his kinswoman, Morwen. That, too, was true enough in its own way. It was her meddling that had set this long nightmare in motion.

And then I would find him, and kill him.

So long as he didn't kill me first.

Urist and I sorted through our baggage. I picked out the warmest and sturdiest of the clothing Tadeuz Vral's servants had brought. My sword-belt and blades, my flint striker. The better of the two hunting bows, and four steel-tipped arrows Urist had hoarded. My vambraces. The croonie-stone for remembrance. A blanket. A waterskin. Hugues' wooden flute. An assortment of D'Angeline and Vralian coinage.

“And this.” Urist rummaged in his packs and handed me a leather drawstring bag, stiff with dried saltwater. “Here.”

I eyed it. “What's this?”

“To carry his head,” he said. “It was full of lime powder, but it dissolved in the shipwreck. I saved the bag.”

I stowed it in my pack. “My thanks.”

“Boil it down to the bone,” Urist said. “Otherwise it will stink. It's all right, the skull will be enough. The lime would have done as much.”

“Good to know,” I said.

“So who do you think was killed?” he asked.

“I wish I knew,” I said softly.

“So do I.” Amid the bounty the palace servants had provided us, there was a small stoppered jug of somewhat they called starka, a rye spirit flavored with fruits and spices. Urist found a pair of cups and poured for us. “They were men of honor,” he said. “May their spirits rest easily. May all the gods and goddesses of Alba welcome them home.”

We drank.

Urist set down his cup. “I don't like this,” he said somberly. “Any of it. A zealous prince with a head full of odd beliefs, with no care for our honor. A strange place, a hostile place, and you all alone. That was never meant to be.”

You were all alone, kneeling in a snowstorm, beneath a barren tree…

“I'm not so sure of that,” I said.

“Still.” Urist balled one hand into a fist and thumped the outside of his stiff, braced leg. “I would that I were going with you.”

“So do I.” I took another swig of starka. It burned. “Believe me, I do. Urist, if I get caught, promise me you'll do the same as Micah ben Ximon. Promise me you'll disavow all knowledge of my purpose here.”

He grunted. “I'm done with making promises.”

I refilled our cups. “Please?”

Urist gave me a long, dour look. “Just get the bastard's head, my prince.”

Chapter Fifty-Two

Before I departed Vralgrad, I had an audience with the Grand Prince Tadeuz Vral.I rather liked him.

I hadn't expected that.

The summons came in the morning. It was a hasty affair—he was, as Micah ben Ximon had indicated, primarily concerned with his brother's escape. But he had heard the news and made time to meet with me in his chambers while he broke his fast.

“Sit,” he said when I was ushered into his presence. “Eat.”

I sat.

Tadeuz Vral studied me curiously. I studied him back. He was clean-shaven, with the same rugged bones I'd come to associate with Vralians, the skin stretched taut over the cheeks. Brown hair, lively brown eyes. No older than Micah. He grinned at me. Strong, white teeth. “Terre d'Ange, eh?”

I nodded. “Yes, my lord.”

He said somewhat in a rapid spate of Rus. I shook my head, perplexed. Prince Tadeuz Vral reached across the table and took my chin in his hand, slapping my cheek lightly with easy familiarity. I was so startled, I didn't have time to take offense at it. “Your people are born long ago from angels, eh? So Micah says. Very nice. You make believers.”

“In Terre d'Ange?” I asked, bewildered.

“Here. Yeshua's blood, yes? The Rebbes say angels walk the earth and talk to chosen people. Very beautiful like you. Maybe God sent you, too. I pray it is so.” He beckoned to an attendant, who stepped forward and opened a sizable purse. Vral took a careless handful of coins from it and bestowed them on me, then made a shooing gesture with both hands. “Go, go! Go explore. Is a bad time, with my brother. Come back. We talk.”

I went.

I didn't know what to make of Tadeuz Vral. There had been a warmth there; somewhat human. I'd thought to find him more like the Mahrkagir. He'd had a head full of odd prophecies, all right. And they'd damn near come true. If it weren't for Phèdre, they would have. Angra Mainyu, and ten thousand years of darkness. This felt very different.

I took my leave of the palace and made my way to the wharf, my battered saddlebags slung over my shoulder, the hunting bow and four arrows lashed to the strap.

I was alone.

I was well and truly alone, for the first time …well, since Daršanga, really. There had been isolated moments in Tiberium, but they were only moments. It felt strange.

There was a small market at the wharf. I bought strips of salted beef, hard biscuits, and dried fruit for the journey; staples that wouldn't spoil. There was a vendor selling luck-charms; pendants with flared crosses. I noticed a number of sailors wearing them. I purchased one, an inexpensive affair of painted wood and cheap gilt. With a twinge of guilt, I strung it around my neck. The vendor nodded in approval. I glanced toward the city, where the spires of the temple were visible.

“Forgive me, Yeshua,” I murmured. “I mean no blasphemy.”

There was no reply, no sense of presence. I wondered what Yeshua ben Yosef, the Habiru prince who had been the One God's son incarnate on Earth, would have made of these new followers of his.

I found passage to the southeast with a handful of taciturn fur-traders led by a fellow named Jergens. It was a small ship, smaller than the one that had brought us to Vralgrad, but when I pointed and asked, “Kargad?” they beckoned me aboard. They had room, having sold their goods in the city, and I reckoned the rivers wouldn't be as dangerous as the sea.

We were three days on the Volkov before we reached the Ulsk tributary. When we first cleared the wharf, Jergens surreptitiously tossed somewhat over the side of the railing, muttering under his breath. He caught me watching him and glared.

“You not tell,” he said, pointing to my cross pendant.

“Tell what?” I asked.

It took a while before he could make himself understood, and Jergens wasn't a talkative man, but there wasn't much else to do on a small ship. It had been an offering to the vodyanoi, the water-spirit of the Volkov; a piece of superstition banned by Tadeuz Vral. People were not punished for keeping the old faiths, at least not overtly, but it was discouraged. If it became known that Jergens and his fellows did, merchants in Vralgrad would be reluctant to buy their next shipment of furs.

I thought about that on our journey. Thought about the speed with which Vralia was changing, and the way Vralia was changing the face of Yeshuite faith. About Alba and the Maghuin Dhonn, and how they had feared the old ways would be lost. About the vision of my son, Dorelei's and my son, who would have brought about that very thing.

And I wondered for the first time…if I were Berlik, if I had seen that future stumbling toward inevitability, what would I have done?

It was a chilling notion.

Still, I thought, change is not always bad. Of a surety, Terre d'Ange had changed when Elua and his Companions made it their home. In a few short generations' time, they had set their stamp on us, permanently and irrevocably. On our hearts, our minds, in our very blood. We were D'Angeline.

But it hadn't happened at the point of a sword.

What I'd said to Sidonie—the words she had quoted back to me, my mother's words—was true. Blessed Elua cared naught for thrones or crowns. Those were mortal ambitions. Nor did he care for glory or power or the fulfillment of mysterious prophecies or, insofar as I knew, aught but love, desire, and the myriad pleasures with which life was filled. I understood that in a way I never had before.