Kushiel's Justice (Page 78)

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Kebek clicked his tongue dismissively, then shrugged and turned both palms upward, raising his brows to ask what in the world I saw in this useless woman of dubious attractiveness who couldn't cook or sew or hunt.

If I could have spoken to him, what would I have said? That the woman I loved was the heir to a powerful nation? That she had spent her life at her mother's knee, learning about diplomacy and negotiation and making difficult decisions that would affect the lives of thousands of people? That she might, might be willing to throw it all away for love of me? That she had a sly sense of humor and a wicked knack for mimicry? A stubborn streak and the capacity for fierce loyalty? The courage to stand down Barquiel L'Envers and defy the entire Court to adhere to Blessed Elua's precept?

All of it was true.

And none of it really mattered. In the end, I didn't know why I loved her to the point of distraction. I knew only that I did.

I drew a circle around my heart with one finger. “I don't know, Kebek. I just do.”

He nodded with all the sagacity of his sixteen or seventeen years. We sat in silence a moment, thinking about our women. Kebek brightened and nudged me. He gave me another inquiring look and made a lewd gesture recognized the world over.

“That?” I sighed and lay back on my pallet, folding my arms beneath my head. “Oh, my friend, you have no idea.”

Chapter Fifty-Five

If I had known how long I'd be stuck in a stone cell in Tarkov it with Kebek the Tatar, I might have kept track of the days. But expecting to be freed at a moment's notice, I didn't. As a result, a great many days passed.How many, I couldn't say.

There was no word from Micah ben Ximon in Petrovik. When I asked the captain, he shrugged apologetically and promised soon, soon.

In the meantime, a feast-day arrived.

It had, I gathered, somewhat to do with the initial victory of Tadeuz Vral over his brother's forces. The Feast of One Hundred Martyrs, the guards called it. Apparently, it was celebrated all over Vralia since the battle; or at least those parts of Vralia that lay under the control of Tadeuz Vral. The mayor of Tarkov sent a cask of starka to his guards.

They got drunk.

I'd never met the mayor of Tarkov, on whose orders I was detained. Whoever he was, I reckoned he was a weak or disinterested fellow, trusting his captain of the guard to handle the matter. I never knew the captain's name, either. He wouldn't give it to me, reckoning I might be a spy. But one thing I did learn: Vralians loved their starka.

They began with toasts to each and every one of the One Hundred Martyrs, naming ten at a time and downing generous gulps of starka. Then came a rousing retelling of the battle in which the One Hundred had led their fateful charge, followed by maudlin tales of noble, grieving widows and fatherless children vowing vengeance. By the time the maudlin tales gave way to songs, they were all well and thoroughly inebriated. Kebek and I lounged on our pallets, wincing at the loud, off-key singing. It made for a late, noisy night, but at least they were keeping the braziers stoked.

And then one of the guards got the idea of rummaging through my belongings, which were held in the adjacent room, and fetching Hugues' flute.

He played it very badly, but it didn't stop the others from encouraging him, laughing and shouting. A slow tide of fury rose in me. I got to my feet, pacing restlessly. Kebek watched me curiously.

“That flute was a gift,” I said grimly to him. “I played it for my wife. It made her laugh.”

He shrugged, not understanding.

“Hey!” I caught the bars of the window and pulled myself up. The guards on duty glanced at me. “You sound like a sick cow,” I said in Rus.

The flute-player flushed. The others laughed at him, making lowing sounds. “You think you can play better?” he asked.

“Than a sick cow?” I asked contemptuously. “Yes.”

The guards conferred, laughing and scuffling. To my surprise, one took the cell key from the nail where it hung and came over to unlock the door. They hauled me into the guardroom, half a dozen drawing their swords, relocking the door behind me. I watched them warily, but they didn't seem inclined to violence, just drunken fun.

“So play, spy,” said the guard who'd taken my flute. He handed it to me. “Yes! Play for the honor and glory of the One Hundred Martyrs.”

I glared at him, put the flute to my lips, and blew.

It was hardly my finest hour—I was out of practice—but I daresay the Vralians didn't know it. I'd found solace in music during the journey to Innisclan, pining for my lost love. Later, I'd kept it up during the long winter months at Clunderry I hadn't begun as a very good player, but I'd ended as a fair one.

I played a solemn, martial dirge that made the guards bow their heads and press their fists to their hearts, remembering the martyrs. When I finished, they slapped my back and pressed a cup of starka on me. I raised it. “To the One Hundred Martyrs,” I said, draining it at a gulp. I could see Kebek's face hanging in the barred window of our cell, suffused with envy.

“More.” Someone began clapping out a beat. “More!”

I played every tune I could remember, and a few I couldn't. It went on long into the night. The Vralian guards laughed and stamped and shouted, drinking starka and periodically offering new toasts to their favorite martyrs. And in the back of my mind, a plan took shape.

I played without thinking, trying desperately to remember. The green smell of the Alban countryside in summer. A full moon glinting on a silver pipe. Morwen. The tune had haunted me all the way across Alba. I'd played it the night I'd spilled my seed on taisgaidh soil, dreaming of Sidonie.

It was us. That's how they bound you.

“Is enough, I think,” one of the guards slurred. He gestured at me with the point of his sword. “You give honor to the One Hundred. Thank you. Now we put you back.”

“One more,” I said. “For sleep with peace.”

He nodded blearily, going to fetch the key to my cell. Others were already yawning. One was tipping the cask, pouring the last dregs of starka into his cup.

I whispered a prayer and played Morwen's tune.

I had to close my eyes, unable to look. I shut out the world, shut out my thoughts, focusing on the melody; poignant and bittersweet, filled with the promise of desire and the deep ache of loss. Note after note, soft and lingering. I played them without faltering, every breath a prayer. And when I had finished, I lowered the flute and opened my eyes.

The guards were snoring.

Every last one of them.

My heart began beating quickly. I stepped over a sleeping body and tested the door to the inner chamber where my things lay. It was unlocked. Beyond, the room was dark. I didn't think it was used by anyone but the captain, and that only during the day I moved silently, willing my eyes to adjust. They didn't. I found my saddlebags by touch, fumbling in the darkness. There was the hunting bow, there my sword-belt. I stowed my flute and prayed everything else was there, retreating carefully back to the guardroom.

My bedroll.

It was locked in the cell with Kebek. It didn't matter, I thought; there were others. I could steal one of the guards' blankets.

But then there was Kebek.

I stood for a moment in a state of profound indecision, then cursed inwardly. The guard with the key was slumped against a wall, slumbering peaceably, exhaling starka fumes. The key dangled from his fingers. I eased it from his grasp. When his fingers twitched, I thought my heart would stop. If they caught me trying to escape with Kebek, I doubted even Micah ben Ximon could convince them I wasn't a spy. At best, Kebek was a horse-thieving Tatar, and I should leave him. But I'd spent the last few weeks of my life sharing a blanket with him, and I couldn't bring myself to do it. He wasn't much more than a boy, and somewhere, there was a short woman with plump, round buttocks wondering if her young lover was dead or alive.

I wondered if Tadeuz Vral would prove merciful and ask for ransom.

I wondered if Ysandre would pay it.

For once, luck was with me. The guard didn't wake. I unlocked the cell door. In the dim light of the low-burning braziers, I made out the form of Kebek, sleeping. I knelt beside him and put my hand over his mouth, then shook him awake.

His black eyes snapped open and his body tensed. It eased when he saw me. I took my hand away, placed a finger to my lips, then pointed to the open cell door. Kebek's eyes widened. He sat up and gave me a hard embrace, kissing me on both cheeks. I shook my head at him, stuffing my blanket into my pack.

Despite his incessant questioning in the cell, he did know how to be quiet when it mattered. Together, we stole out of the guardhouse, taking whatever useful items we could find; spare blankets, a thick coat someone had doffed during the celebration, a half-eaten loaf of bread.

Outside, it was cold. Late autumn, I reckoned, but far colder than it would have been in Terre d'Ange. I shivered and gazed at the stars high overhead. It was late. The town square was empty and quiet. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground.

We were free.

What now?

It was Kebek who found an answer. Lifting his head, he sniffed the cold air, the beckoned and pointed. There was a stable attached to the mayor's manor house. We raised our brows at one another and went to explore.

Our luck stayed with us. The stable was guarded by one stable-boy, slumbering in the straw, his body wrapped around a jug. I could smell the starka at twenty paces.

It was dangerous, but not, I thought, as dangerous as venturing out on foot would be. We'd be caught too quickly. The hardest part was finding gear in the tackroom. I was grateful for the blindfolded games I'd played with Phèdre when I was younger. I searched with my hands, moving without a sound. Things were more or less where one would expect to find them; bridles hung on pegs, saddles slung over supports. I found burlap sacks of grain, too, and took two of those.

It took me several trips, while Kebek led a pair of horses into the square. He was good with horses. We worked quickly, silently, and efficiently together. In a trice, the horses were saddled and bridled. It felt strange to sling my bags over the crupper and mount. I hadn't ridden astride for months.

Our last hurdle to clear was the gate. I knew it would be barred from within at night. I didn't know if it would be guarded. We rode through the sleeping city. The horses' heads bobbed sleepily. The sound of their hooves seemed unnaturally loud.

There was no guard posted at the gate.

“Blessed Elua be praised,” I whispered. Kebek said somewhat fervent in agreement. I slipped from the saddle, lifted the heavy bar. The gate creaked open when I shoved it. I led my mount through, and Kebek followed. I pushed the gate closed, and hoped no one was planning to raid Tarkov that night. It wasn't their fault they'd taken me for a spy. Under the circumstances, I would have, too.

There was a dirt road stretching eastward before us. Kebek and I glanced at one another. He pointed at the road. I shrugged. Ethan of Ommsmeer had said Miroslas lay to the east. Insofar as I knew, our paths were aligned, at least for now. I wasn't happy about it, but it was the only road available to us. I swung myself astride. Kebek dug his heels into his mount's flanks, clicking his tongue.

We rode throughout the night, under the starlight. There was no pursuit. No one in Tarkov knew we were gone yet. It was quiet and peaceful, and a little surreal. I was a fugitive in a strange land, riding beside a young Tatar man.

Kebek looked happy.

Elua, I should have left him there.

We rode through a wood, but it wasn't as dense as the one between Kargad and Tarkov. By dawn, we had emerged. There was a stream with a skin of ice on it. We broke the ice and watered our horses and ourselves. In the daylight, I could see that Kebek had chosen wisely. The horses we'd stolen were at once sturdy and elegant, with short legs and shapely heads, calm and quiet. They looked capable of going long distances.

“You're no Bastard,” I said to mine. “But you'll do.”

It was a league or so after we emerged from the woods that the road forked. One path, the more faint of the two, continued eastward. The other veered south. Kebek pointed to the latter, raising his brows.

I shrugged. “Miroslas?”

His mouth twisted. His folk were nomadic, but he was in the service of Fedor Vral and he knew the lay of the land. Reluctantly, he nodded toward the eastern road. I tapped my chest and pointed at it. He tapped his own chest and pointed toward the south, saying somewhat in his own tongue.

“So we part ways.” I put my fists together, then separated them.

Kebek nodded sadly.

We divided our things. Whatever he'd had to begin with, it had been seized in Tarkov. I gave him the warm coat we'd stolen and one of the blankets. A sack of grain, half the half-eaten loaf of bread. A few coins I wasn't sure he'd be able to use. I didn't have a waterskin to spare, and I couldn't afford to give him my sword or the hunting bow. Kebek shrugged. I wrestled with my conscience and gave him one of my daggers, the one I wore in a boot-sheath. It hurt to part with it, but I didn't think much of his odds of survival crossing hostile territory without a single weapon. There wasn't much point to freeing him if he didn't stand a fighting chance of living.

“Treasure it,” I said to him. “It was a gift, too.” I smiled a little. “Try not to use it for bad things, will you? I don't care who wins this war, Fedor or Tadeuz, but don't kill anyone who isn't trying to kill you. Just…go home and make love to your girl.” I shaped her figure in the air. “In the end, nothing else matters.”

Kebek nodded, then grinned. “Shut up,” he said, mimicking me in passable D'Angeline.

I laughed. “Fair enough.” I put out my hand, but he ignored it, stepping forward to give me another hard embrace. I returned it. “Good luck.”