Kushiel's Justice (Page 79)

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He said somewhat else; much the same, I daresay. And then I mounted my stolen horse and he mounted his, and we rode our separate ways. I glanced back a few times, and caught Kebek doing the same, but it wasn't long before my path headed into another wood and he was out of sight.

I wondered if he would make it safely home to his plump-bottomed girl. As much as I'd thought I disliked Tatars, I'd come to harbor a sneaking fondness for Kebek. I hoped he'd survive.

And I very much hoped that freeing him didn't get me killed.

I needed to find Berlik and finish my quest. After that, I could tell the truth and suffer the consequences. It wouldn't matter then, the deed would be done. And if nothing else, it would lend credence to the truth of my story; and there was Urist to back me up, and the story of the slain Albans that Micah ben Ximon had kept quiet, too.

All I could do was hope and pray that Tadeuz Vral would understand that it was a matter of honor and justice. That he would prove merciful or greedy or ambitious, or some combination of the three. Enough to grant me clemency or at least a chance to be ransomed. If Ysandre wouldn't pay it—and Elua knows, she might still be angry enough to leave me to languish in Vralia—mayhap Drustan would. After all, it was his niece I was avenging. And if he wouldn't, there was Phèdre; she'd sell Montrève if she had to. She'd sell herself if it came to it, and I wasn't sure which would fetch the better price. She hadn't taken a patron in over ten years, but the offers still came. Some of them were staggering.

It wouldn't come to it, of course. I had a considerable income and estates of my own, despite the fact that I neglected them. I'd never cared about wealth or status. I'd gladly cede it all if it meant getting out of Vralia.

Because all I really wanted in the world was to go home and make love to my girl.

Chapter Fifty-Six

By the time I found MIroslas, it was well and truly winter in Vralia. Even in Terre d'Ange, the frost must have been thick on the ground. Summer had passed and autumn had come and gone since I began my quest.If it hadn't been for the war, I daresay my luck would have been worse. I bypassed the first village I encountered, but I couldn't afford to bypass the second. I'd been two days and the better part of three nights on the road, with naught to eat but a quarter-loaf of bread. If I chanced waiting for another, farther village and it proved more than a day's ride, I'd starve. As it was, hunger made a knot in my belly, and I was starting to feel dizzy. I'd pushed myself and my stolen mount, trying to stay well ahead of any pursuit.

Luck was still with me.

Unlike in Terre d'Ange, gossip in Vralia didn't spread swiftly from town to town. The distances were too vast, and the commonfolk had little cause to travel during the cold months. No one in the small farming village I entered had heard news of a D'Angeline spy in Tarkov. The village was a quarter empty, for many of the young men had gone to enlist in Micah ben Ximon's army. The people I did encounter were curious and kind, especially the women. There was no inn, but a generous widow put me up for the night. She fed me and let my horse shelter in her cow byre. When I left the next day, she gave me three loaves of bread, a wheel of cheese, and a fur hat and mittens that had belonged to her husband.

I paid her with Tadeuz Vral's coins, feeling guilty. I might not be a spy, but of a surety, I was deceiving everyone I encountered. It was a feeling that stayed with me during my journey. I tried to avoid inhabited places, but when the snow began to fall in earnest, I had little choice. And too, there was the small matter of getting lost, which happened several times when I took a wrong turn and cost myself days. If I had pursuers, all I could hope was that it confused them.

Miroslas wasn't easy to reach. It lay several days' ride past the nearest village. If I'd been on foot, I might have given up. There had been heavy snowfall, and the path—it wasn't even a proper road—was nearly invisible. If it hadn't been for the peaks of the Narodin Mountains visible toward the east, I would have gotten lost. I spent half my time making camp; trampling snow before I could built a fire, breaking off pine branches to build a makeshift pallet, rigging windbreaks for my stolen mount, melting snow in a small iron pot I'd purchased from a family wealthy enough to have one to spare.

When I did find Miroslas at last, it seemed almost a mirage. A yeshiva of sorts, Ethan had called it, but it looked more like a castle hidden in the woods; except that there were no walls, no defenses. Only an open courtyard, where an elderly man was sweeping snow.

Somehow, it seemed disrespectful to ride. I dismounted and approached on foot, leading my horse. The man paused, leaning on his broom and watching. “Shalom, father,” I said in Habiru. “I'm seeking—”

“So the avenging angel has arrived,” he interrupted me.

I said nothing.

“It is the wise man who knows the value of silence,” he observed. “It is our policy to welcome all travellers. Yeshua's mercy knows no bounds.” He pointed. “You may stable your horse there, poor beast. When you have finished, come find me. I am Avraham ben David, the Rebbe of Miroslas.”

I inclined my head. “Imriel nó Montrève de la Courcel.”

“I know who you are,” he said.

I led my horse to the stables. There were no other horses there, only goats. A young Vralian man was there, milking one of them. He gaped at me, but said nothing, only pointed to an empty stall. I found the hayrack and a bucket. The Vralian pointed to a tub of water, already beginning to ice over. I lugged an armload of hay into the stall and filled the bucket with water for my grateful mount, then unsaddled him and rubbed him down with a handful of straw, trying to think what in the world I would say to the Rebbe.

It was a quiet place, Miroslas. A place where men go to think and be quiet, Ethan had said. It was true. As I learned later, many of the men there had taken an oath to dwell in silence, contemplating the glories of Yeshua. When I entered through the unguarded main door, the sound of my boot-heels on the flagstones seemed very loud. A fellow of middle years, clad in plain black robes, approached me with a wondering look.

“Rebbe Avraham told me to find him,” I said softly in Habiru. He shook his head, uncomprehending. I repeated myself in Rus.

His eyes lit. He touched my arm and beckoned. I thought he would lead me to the Rebbe, but instead, he led me down a long corridor to a dining hall filled with long, empty tables. There I sat while he served me a dish of meat dumplings so good I nearly groaned aloud. If it hadn't been for all the silence, I would have.

When I had finished, he touched my arm again, motioning for me to leave my pack and follow him. It was a good thing I'd had practice in unspoken communication with Kebek. I followed him down another long corridor. We passed other men in plain robes. All of them looked curiously at me. None of them spoke.

He led me to the temple proper. It held the Yeshuite accoutrements with which I was familiar: the khai symbol inlaid in mosaic on the floor, the ever-lit lamp of the Ur Tamid. The ark containing the sacred scrolls; a replica of that original ark described in the Tanakh. I hadn't read the Tanakh. But I knew where it was, that ark. It was in Saba, on an island called Kapporeth, in the midst of the Lake of Tears. I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but I knew. I'd been there. It was where Phèdre had found the Name of God.

And there was one thing here that was not there.

A great cross of rough-hewn timbers, lashed together and bolted to the wall. The Rebbe lay prostrate before it, his arms spread wide. My guide touched my arm a final time, nodded, and departed. I waited.

After a long time, Rebbe Avraham rose. He sat on a wooden bench and beckoned to me. I joined him.

“What do you see?” he asked me.

“A cruel way to die,” I said.

“You find it barbaric.” He nodded. “When Tadeuz Vral seized upon it as a symbol, I did, too. And yet, he is right.” He turned a deep gaze on me. “Yeshua ben Yosef chose this. To subject himself to every humility mortal flesh might bear, to offer up his suffering, to make atonement for all of mankind. On his own shoulders, he bore this cross to the place of his own death, bloodied by the lash, enduring the jeers and spittle of an ignorant populace filled with fear and hatred. Should we not be humbled by this?”

I thought about Phèdre and Daršanga. “Yes, of course.”

“And yet you are not,” the Rebbe said. “Not enough to accept his sacrifice with gratitude.”

I spread my hands. “My lord…I am D'Angeline.”

“D'Angeline,” he mused. “What does that mean? Elua ben Yeshua was born of the blood of the mashiach. And yet he rejected his birthright when it was offered to him.”

“Blessed Elua had more than one birthright, Father,” I said. “The one he chose was love.”

“Carnal love,” he said. “Not divine love.”

I shrugged. “We are mortal flesh, my lord. How can we separate the two?”

The Rebbe sighed. “Here in this place, I seek understanding. I seek to understand Yeshua's will; Adonai's will. I seek to reconcile the Yeshua-that-was, the gentle philosopher, with the Yeshua-who-comes, the warrior. To reconcile the long history and traditions of my people, the Children of Yisra-el, with this fierce new faith of Tadeuz Vral. But I do not think I will ever understand D'Angelines.”

I smiled wryly. “Nor I Yeshuites.”

He was silent for a long moment. “I know why you have come. And I would ask you to find it in your heart to leave.”

“Do you know what he did?” I asked.

“Yes.” Rebbe Avraham's face looked old and tired. “Yes, I do. Many of the men who come here seek solace in silence and thought. Berlik did, too. But not all who come vow themselves to silence. Berlik spoke to me. We spoke at great length. I know what he did.”

“Then how can you ask?” I said.

“Because it is my duty,” he said quietly. “Because I have seen the depth of grief in his heart at his own actions. Because Yeshua's death granted all men the right to repent and atone. Is your Elua, your god of love, so merciless?”

“No.” I gazed at the cross. The blood stirred in my veins, whispered in my ears like the distant rustle of bronze wings. “But I am not here on Elua's business, Father. I am here on Kushiel's. And his mercy is just, but it is stern.”

“God's punisher,” the Rebbe said. “He who loved his charges too well.”

“Yes.”

Another silence passed between us. “If this is love at work, it is no kind I recognize. Berlik is not here.” Rebbe Avraham ben David squared his shoulders. “I sent him away. I could not allow this to happen under my roof.”

“Where?” I asked.

“Do you know,” he said without answering, “he sought to extract a promise from me. That I would tell you, if you came. You and you alone.” His wrinkled lips twisted. “I wouldn't give it. I didn't want to know.”

“Where?” I repeated.

His voice rose and cracked. “I gave no promise!”

I said nothing.

“I don't know,” the Rebbe said at length. “Truly. It is a sin for a man to kill himself, even though he use another man's hand to do it. Berlik …Berlik believed he could see the future. That certain things were foreordained. I will not abet his madness.”

“Berlik did see the future,” I said. “Too much of it. I know, I saw it, too. That's why he killed my wife and our unborn child, my lord. And if he had to do it again, he would, no matter how deeply it grieved him. Again and again.”

“I do not believe that,” he said.

“Then let him convince me,” I said. “Berlik has a right to his wishes. Mayhap this quest is not what I believe it to be.”

Rebbe Avraham lifted his gaze to the cross. His lips moved as he prayed in silence. I waited. Watched his shoulders slump in defeat. “Betimes there are no easy answers, are there?”

“Not always,” I said. “No. We try to be good. But the way is seldom clear.”

“Berlik spoke of continuing,” he said heavily. “Of going northeast. Of crossing the mountains. Onward, always onward. I begged him not to risk it, not with winter coming. To wait for spring. Miroslas…” He paused. “We have a writ from Tadeuz Vral himself. This land that lies northward under the shadow of the mountains—a great deal of it is set aside for our usage. Leagues and leagues, for silence and contemplation. Berlik needed solitude. I begged him to avail himself of the quiet spaces Miroslas has to offer; in the woods, alone. To hide. I do not know if he heeded me. I know only that he left.”

“How long ago did he leave?” I asked.

“Six weeks ago, perhaps,” the Rebbe said. “Before the heavy snows fell. There has been no word of him since. I cannot say if he stayed or went. I have told you all I know.”

I took a deep breath, feeling a new burden settle into place. “Thank you, Father.”

The Rebbe rose. “Don't.”

It was the last word he or anyone else spoke to me in Miroslas before I departed. In fact, it was the last word I was to hear spoken by any voice not my own for a long time.

I left Miroslas in the morning. Like the people I'd met elsewhere in Vralia, the silent priests and acolytes had been generous. I was given a chamber with a hard cot on which to sleep, a basin of water for washing. I was fed another meal of plain, hearty fare. My bags were packed with a sack of pottage grain and a heavy parcel of dried, salted meat I couldn't identify. When I went to the stable to retrieve my mount, I found another sack of coarse grain, large enough to last a long time.

The same young Vralian was there milking the goats. “Why?” I said aloud to him. “If the Rebbe disapproves, why aid me? Wouldn't it be better to let me wander in the wilderness without succor and let God's will decide?”