Kushiel's Justice (Page 77)

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Alas, they brought him back, bloodier and a bit more battered.

And then it was my turn.

The captain wasn't taking any chances. He sent a half a dozen guards to escort me to an inner chamber of the guardhouse. My pack was there, all the items in it removed and placed neatly on a wooden table.

“Yours?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. After a day of silence, I'd had time to collect my wits. “Is there person speak Habiru?”

The captain arched one brow. “Habiru?”

“I speak,” I said. “Better than Rus.”

He conferred with the other guards. One of them left. We stood in silence until he returned with a man in ornate robes and a richly embroidered cap. The captain bowed to him with obvious respect. The sight of him filled me with relief. If I could explain, surely they would see that the idea I'd had anything to do with the Tatar raid was absurd.

“This is the Rebbe,” the captain said. “Tell him why you're here.”

“Shalom, my lord,” I said to the Rebbe. “This is a mistake, a misunderstanding. I've nothing to do with the Tatars, and I didn't help the man. I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's all.”

The Rebbe didn't look particularly friendly. “Why are you here?”

“To buy a horse.” I pointed to the purse on the table. “My lord, I've coins given me by Tadeuz Vral himself. I'm a kinsman of the Queen of Terre d'Ange, sent to explore Vralia. As I told the captain, send to Micah ben Ximon. He will tell you it is true.” I hoped it was true. Ben Ximon had warned me he might not be able to protect me if I were caught, but I hardly thought these were the circumstances he had in mind.

The Rebbe translated my words for the captain, who shrugged and said, “Why does he have a Tatar mark?”

“I was a prisoner a long time ago,” I replied in Habiru. “In Drujan. There were Tatars there. One of them did it to me.”

The Rebbe translated. The captain looked incredulous. I didn't blame him. He said somewhat lengthy. The Rebbe nodded and turned back to me. “What has Prince Fedor promised your Queen?”

I blinked. “My Queen?”

“Surely, you do not think we are all so foolish.” He frowned. “Why else would you come at such a time? You went to Vralgrad to spy for Fedor, to learn Micah ben Ximon's plans, then you go east toward Petrovik, where Fedor has retreated. You have arranged to meet his wild Tatars here. So, what has he promised your Queen?”

I laughed in disbelief. “My lord, I mean no offense, but I'm not sure Queen Ysandre knows Vralia exists as a nation. I'm very sure she doesn't know Fedor Vral exists.”

“Ah.” The Rebbe studied me. “If she does not know of Vralia, how could she send you to explore ?”

I could have bitten my tongue off. “Rumors,” I said. “Tadeuz Vral sent a shipment of furs and amber to the Cruarch of Alba with an offer of trade. I was travelling with a companion, the Cruarch's man. He was injured in a shipwreck. He is in Vralgrad.”

“How convenient,” the Rebbe observed.

I gritted my teeth. “Not really, no.”

He spoke with the captain of the guard. The captain picked up my vambraces, pointing to the flowing, stylized lines of the Black Boar of the Cullach Gorrym worked on them. I hated seeing him handle them. “This is Tatar work,” the Rebbe said.

“It's Alban,” I said in exasperation. “It's the Cruarch's insignia!”

“It looks Tatar,” he said.

I opened my mouth to reply, and thought about the Maghuin Dhonn, who claimed to have crossed the ice to Alba many centuries ago. I thought about the stamp of their features; the set of their eyes, the slant of their cheekbones. How they claimed to have interbred with the Cruithne and taught them. If any of it were true, I realized, it was indeed very possible that the Maghuin Dhonn and the Tatars were descended from some common stock.

“Ah,” the Rebbe said, watching me. “You do not deny it.”

“My wife had those made for me,” I said softly. “Dorelei mab Breidaia, niece of the Cruarch of Alba.”

Another exchange in Rus. The captain shook his head in frank disbelief. “Such an important person you become,” the Rebbe said. “Minute by minute, the story grows. Now you are married to the Cruarch's niece ?

“I was,” I said.

“Maybe.” He folded his arms. “You are a cunning fighter. You speak Habiru. You come to Vralgrad, you win ben Ximon's ear. You were a Tatar prisoner, you know their ways. You are, I think, the perfect spy.”

He was absolutely right.

I spread my hands. “But I'm not. My lord, if I were a spy, why would I let myself get caught so carelessly? I'd be on my way to join Fedor Vral, not stumbling into the middle of a Tatar horse-raid.”

“I cannot say. Perhaps some misfortune befell you. If you're not a spy, then why are you here?” the Rebbe asked. There was an honest curiosity in his voice. “Here, in Tarkov, on foot. There is nothing to see, nothing to explore. Why?”

It was the one question I couldn't answer. The truth would be worse than a lie. There was no earthly reason for me to be here, except that I was hunting for the man who killed my wife; a Yeshuite pilgrim. “Send to Vralgrad,” I repeated. “Micah ben Ximon will vouch for me.”

“Maybe you lied to him, too,” the Rebbe said.

“Ask him what we talked about!” I raised my voice. “I don't know or care a blessed thing about his plans. He didn't say, and I didn't ask.”

He conferred with the captain. “If Micah ben Ximon orders it, you will be freed,” the Rebbe said. “Because it is possible, you will not be put to the same hard questioning as your Tatar friend. Your things will be kept safe and you will be unharmed. But if ben Ximon does not order it…” He shrugged. “You would be wise to confess and tell all that you know. Yeshua is merciful. If you are willing to cooperate, perhaps Tadeuz Vral will allow your Queen to ransom her spy.”

“He's not my friend!” I shouted. “And I don't know anything!”

“Pity for you,” the Rebbe said. “I suggest you pray.”

With that, our interview was concluded. I was led back to my cell. The heavy door clanged shut behind me, the key turning in the lock. I flung myself on one of the straw pallets. Every muscle in my body was knotted with fury. The Tatar bestirred himself and asked me somewhat in his own tongue.

“Shut up,” I said to him. “This is all your fault.”

He pointed to his split lip, then a fresh graze over his left brow, miming punches. Pointed at my face with an expression of concern.

“No.” I prodded the puffy, tender flesh around my right eye socket. “This is from yesterday. They didn't hit me today.”

He nodded, then screwed up his face and made a universal gesture of apology.

“You damn well ought to be sorry,” I said. “I hope they hang you. What the hell are you doing in Tarkov? Shouldn't you be roaming the plains or holed up in Petrovik with Fedor Vral?”

The Tatar pointed to his own chest. “Kebek.”

“I don't care,” I said.

“Kebek,” he repeated, his expression open and hopeful, gesturing at me to reciprocate. He was young, younger than me. There were a few bristles of black hair growing above his upper lip. All I'd seen when I first looked at him was Jagun's face. Now that I looked closer, I could see an echo of the Maghuin Dhonn; and even fainter, of the Cruithne. His brown skin had the same warm tone as Dorelei's. His black eyes…

I closed mine. “Leave me be.”

He didn't, of course.

Over the days that followed, I learned a few things. Neither the captain or the guards would tell me anything, but I listened to them gossip. I understood enough Rus to gather that their ungentle questioning of Kebek had been utterly futile. He didn't speak a word of Rus or any other tongue but his own. Their speculation was that he and the other Tatars had been part of the group that had helped Fedor Vral escape. Either they had somehow been cut off from the main party, or they had arranged to meet me here in Tarkov.

More depressingly, I learned within a week that Micah ben Ximon was no longer in Vralgrad. He was on the march, leading Tadeuz Vral's army toward Petrovik, a walled city nestled in the Narodin Mountains, where Fedor Vral was prepared to hunker down for the winter.

Vralia was at war.

“I am sorry,” the captain of the guard said. “There are Tarkovan men going to join ben Ximon. I will send word with them.”

“Please do,” I said shortly.

I didn't care about any of it. Didn't care about the quarrel between Tadeuz and Fedor, didn't care who had promised what to whom. I lay in my cell mulling over my options and doing my best to ignore Kebek.

Once again, there were no good choices. This wasn't civilized Caerdicca Unitas, where I could send a message to the D'Angeline ambassador and bring the might and wealth of Terre d'Ange to bear; and I wasn't exactly in Ysandre's good graces anyway. I thought long and hard about begging the captain to send to Tadeuz Vral himself. It might be that the Grand Prince would intervene. He had seemed well-disposed toward me and interested in Terre d'Ange. On the other hand, he might very well believe I was a spy. With Vralia at war, I daresay he'd choose to err on the side of caution. Elua knows, I would if I were him. Of a surety, he was unlikely to let me continue to wander unattended around Vralia.

I could tell the truth.

Having met Tadeuz Vral, I didn't think he was a man likely to punish me for somewhat I hadn't done. I could claim to have repented of my intentions. If I was lucky, he would simply forgive me and send me home. And Dorelei's death would go unavenged, all my efforts for naught. It was a galling thought. I wasn't willing to accept failure. Not yet.

In the end, I couldn't think of a single course that didn't involve abandoning my hunt for Berlik except waiting for Micah ben Ximon's aid, and praying like hell that he was willing to give it. If he wasn't…well. There was always the truth.

And failure.

So I waited. Another week passed, then two. The captain thought it was at least ten days' ride to Petrovik, mayhap longer.

The worst part of it was the tedium. I wonder that more men don't die of it in prison. We weren't treated badly. After the first day, they didn't bother to beat Kebek. They didn't seem inclined to kill him, either. We ate what the guards ate, twice a day. When the temperature dropped further, coldness seeping incessantly through the stone walls, they took pity on me and gave me the bedroll from my pack.

It wasn't as bad during the day when the braziers were stoked in the guardroom and one could move about, but at night, when the braziers burned low, the chill sank into one's bones. I spent half that first night wrapped in my blanket in a state of profound irritation, listening to the Tatar's teeth chatter in the darkness.

“Elua!” I said in disgust, giving up. “Fine. Come here.”

He made a questioning sound.

I patted my pallet. “Come here, you horse-thieving Tatar idiot. I'll share the blanket.”

He crawled over to me, dragging his own pallet. Crawled gratefully beneath the blanket, huddling against me. His entire body was rigid and trembling with cold. He smelled of unwashed flesh and a faint, lingering odor of horse. In the pitch black of our benighted cell, there was nothing about him to remind me of Jagun. He might have been any half-frozen young man lying beside me. It seemed to take forever before he warmed enough to relax, murmuring somewhat thankful in a sleepy voice.

“Shut up,” I said to him, but I said it gently.

I daresay the tedium was worse for him. At least I was able to communicate with our gaolers, albeit in a limited fashion. I had the distraction of listening to the guards gossip outside our cell, which helped improve my understanding of Rus. And I practiced the Cassiline forms, telling the hours with empty hands while Kebek watched with a mixture of admiration and perplexity.

If nothing else, he was persistent. He asked me questions I couldn't begin to comprehend, illustrated with lively gestures. I wished he wouldn't, because any semblance of conversation between us provided fodder for the notion that I was a spy.

In truth, every now and then, I did catch a word I recognized. Elua knows, I'd heard enough of the Tatar tongue spoken in Daršanga, although I'd done my best to forget it. And after a time, much to Kebek's joy, I gave up on ignoring him. When he asked if I had a woman, I knew what he meant. When he asked it for the tenth or twentieth time, I gave up and answered.

“Yes,” I said in D'Angeline. “Oh, yes.” I nodded and pointed at him. “And you?”

Kebek's eyes lit up and he nodded vigorously. He shaped her in the air with his hands; plump and rounded, standing only so high. He mimed her ample buttocks with particular fervor. It made me laugh. He grinned and pointed back at me, raising his brows.

I thought about Sidonie and smiled, trying to shape her. Taller than Alais, not as tall as her mother. There was no single attribute that stood out, or at least not one I could depict with my hands. Just everything in perfect proportion, precise and exact.

Kebek looked unimpressed.

“It's the way it all fits together,” I assured him. “Trust me.”

He didn't look convinced. He said somewhat else, miming. Stirring a pot; eating. Smacking his lips, rubbing his belly. Pointing in inquiry.

“A good cook?” I laughed and shook my head. “Elua, I doubt it!”

He mimed sewing, and I shook my head. Many noblewomen embroidered as a pastime, but I didn't ever recall seeing Sidonie doing it. Kebek mimed hunting, drawing a bow. I shook my head at that, too. Dorelei had been good with a bow; better than I was. Sidonie? She rode to the hunt, of course, but I'd never seen her shoot. I wasn't sure she enjoyed it any more than she enjoyed climbing trees. And it was quite possible that she'd never even seen the inside of a kitchen.